By Joseph Marks
November 28, 2011
During roughly two months since its launch, the Obama administration's We the People online petition website has drawn environmentalists looking to kill the Keystone pipeline project, graduate students seeking more subsidized loans and immigrants advocating for a less labyrinthine visa system.
It's also attracted online poker enthusiasts asking for consumer protections, Wiccans looking for legal protections and three children seeking the return of their deported mother.
Curious about who was using this experiment in digital democracy, Nextgov pulled the 119 petitions posted to We the People on Nov. 14 and organized them by broad subject matter here.
See what issues are on the minds of White House petitioners.The list includes all unanswered petitions that are less than 30 days old and have met the 150 signature threshold to be posted to the public petition site. Nextgov did not distinguish between petitions that had reached the 25,000 signature threshold for an official White House response and those that had not. Petitions that fail to meet that threshold within 30 days are removed from the site and archived.
Conservatives Are Mostly Absent
The most striking feature of the list is that vastly more liberals have taken to the site than conservatives.
There are 10 petitions seeking a loosening of immigration and visa laws, for example, and not a single petition seeking stricter immigration enforcement.
Five petitions seek the removal of Christian artifacts from public lands, greater protections for agnostics and adherents of nontraditional religions, and a halt to teaching creationism in public schools. Two already answered petitions asked for the removal of religious language from U.S. currency and the Pledge of Allegiance. No petitions seek a greater role for religion in public life.
While two active petitions call for the national legalization of same sex marriage, the White House already has responded to another one. There are no petitions opposing gay marriage or asking President Obama to reverse course on the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which refuses to recognize gay marriage under federal law and which he ordered the Justice Department to stop enforcing in February.
There also is not a single petition dealing with President Obama's landmark health care reform legislation or his $840 billion economic stimulus bill.
Some part of conservatives' absence on the site is likely due to pragmatism. A Democratic president, after all, is unlikely to endorse a fundamentally conservative position.
Petitioning the government is as much or more about sparking an open, public debate as it is about advocating an immediate policy change, though, as the White House itself acknowledged in a recent blog post. If We the People doesn't become a dialogue space for conservatives as well as liberals that might damage its long-term credibility and perhaps endanger its survival in a future Republican administration.
Economic Concerns Barely Register
Another striking finding: the troubled economy, which voters said in polls is by far the most important issue the country faces, accounts for only a small share of petitions posted to We the People. Just 8 percent of petitions deal with economic reform, tax reform and housing and some of those only touch on the economy tangentially.
Only one petition as of Nov. 14 addressed the mortgage crisis. It has since been removed from the site and archived after garnering barely 1,000 of the 25,000 signatures necessary for a response. Some petitioners have taken a lesson from Congress, tacking on the phrase "and create jobs" at the end of petitions largely unrelated to job creation. There are no petitions, though, that directly address the high level of U.S. unemployment.
While another 8 percent of petitions on the site deal with national security or defense in some capacity, they focus on the home front or with issues internal to the military. There isn't a single petition addressing the United States' military involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan or Libya, or U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, Somalia and elsewhere.
Petitions relating to the legalization of marijuana far exceed those on any other subject posted to the website. As of Nov. 14, they made up 13 percent of all petitions on the site and 16 total petitions. The administration had already addressed another seven such petitions in October with a blanket response definitively titled "What We Have to Say About Legalizing Marijuana." Many of the current marijuana petitions attack that response as inadequate and seek the firing of its author, Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy Gil Kerlikowske.
This is hardly unexpected. Marijuana legalization advocates have played a dominant role in nearly every online interaction between the White House and the public.
Somewhat surprisingly, the second most popular topic on the list is animal cruelty and animal rights, accounting for 15 petitions and another 13 percent of the total. Some have long suspected the Internet is mostly about cute animals and there's plenty of that here. There also are petitions advocating humane treatment for horses and burros and protections for sharks, bats and lizards.
Perhaps surprisingly, the Occupy movement, which is likely the most successful real-world protest movement of the past decade and has been credited with substantial Internet savvy, is responsible for only two petitions, one of which is awaiting a White House response under an earlier threshold of 5,000 votes and another that looks likely to be archived unanswered on Dec. 2.
So who is using We the People?
Extrapolating from petitions posted to the site, many are probably young, and it's likely that many immigrants or friends of immigrants are among them. This would account for the preponderance of petitions dealing with student loans and visas for foreign students and recent graduates.
If current students make up a substantial portion of petitioners, that also could explain their limited interest in unemployment and the mortgage crisis.
Many petitioners are clearly liberal, but more than one-third of petitions are either nonpartisan or don't easily break down along a liberal-conservative divide.
Perhaps most notable, about one-third of petitioners address issues outside the mainstream -- ones for which the White House hasn't already staked out a firm position and that could benefit from exposure on the site and through social media.
David Stern, director of online engagement for America Speaks, a nonprofit organization that advocates for increased citizen participation in politics, has argued that We the People might be best-suited for bringing both public and White House attention to such low-profile issues, which might otherwise escape notice.
"I hope you'll start to see citizens becoming more politically aware," Stern said of the site, "seeing that even though these grand policy changes they sign onto don't get implemented there are minute changes that do get implemented. We might end up seeing those who participate becoming more attuned to political dynamics and signing onto smaller things that they wouldn't have before."
By Joseph Marks
November 28, 2011