Does signing petitions do anything? What you need to know

Gone are the days when getting signatures on your petition required knocking on doors and standing outside the grocery store to recruit passersby to your cause. With online petitions, organizers can receive hundreds of thousands of signatures within a matter of days, addressing issues both essential and trivial. Because of their popularity, petitions are becoming one of the biggest drivers toward social change.

An online petition created about a year ago calling for justice for George Floyd is the most signed petition on with over 19 million signatures, inspiring nationwide conversations about policing and systemic racism in America. You don’t always need millions of supporters to make a difference though, so keep reading to learn more about how petitions, both big and small, can make a real difference.

Woman signing a petition
Bryan J. Scrafford/Shutterstock

Do petitions actually work?

Petitions are just one part of an overall strategy for change. To make a change within the government, petitions with a certain number of signatures (determined on a state-by-state basis) can ensure a new policy or candidate finds its place on a ballot. These official petitions have legal requirements which outline the specific forms and rules for signing and submitting the document. These often have to be conducted in person, which is why you may see organizers with clipboards in public parks and other highly trafficked areas. These local petitions are highly effective and often inspire policy change in the community.

However, internet petitions are much more freeform. Unlike political petitions, the government does not have a legal obligation to respond. That said, petitions still play a crucial role in social justice movements, often building momentum for the cause. The outpouring of support proves to legislators, companies, and other influential figures just how crucial the issue is. Petitions also serve as an entry point into activism, teaching a lot of people about the issue and encouraging them to get involved.

Critics often refer to online petitions as “slacktivism,” a low-risk way to support a cause by simply clicking a button. However, the accessibility of online petitions is precisely what makes them great. As Rosemary Clark-Parsons, associate director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center on Digital Culture and Society, puts it, “what critics refer to as ‘slacktivism’ can actually create an alternative outlet for those who would typically not get involved in any movement at all.”

Two women signing petitions

A word of warning

With an online petition, you may not know much about the organization or individual running it before you click to sign. As with anything on the internet, use caution when dealing with your personal information. When you sign a petition, you’re giving your name and email address to an unknown group who can then spam you or sell your personal information to outside organizations. It’s always best to research an organization and its petition before blindly signing anything.

If you have any questions about a charity’s trustworthiness or what it’s using your money for, check out Charity Navigator for more information.

Man signing a petition at a protest

How to maximize your impact

Signing a petition shouldn’t be the end of your activism; this is just the beginning! After you sign, be sure to take the following steps to make sure your voice is heard, even after your signature is read:

  • Educate yourself. Read blogs, books, and social media posts, listen to podcasts, watch documentaries, and speak to people involved in the movement. The more you know, the more you can do to help.
  • Spread awareness. After signing, don’t forget to share the petition with your friends and family. If you did any research before or after signing, feel free to share those resources as well.
  • Donate. Money doesn’t solve everything, but it certainly solves a lot of things. Many organizations behind social justice movements are nonprofits that need money to continue their work. If you want your donation to have the biggest impact, consider giving to grassroots organizations with smaller overhead costs. Without the costs of supporting a national organization, these groups can invest donated money directly into the community.
  • Get involved. If you’re passionate about a specific cause, find volunteer opportunities with organizations that are pushing for the changes you believe in.

Petitions are an easy and accessible way to gain support for a cause, whether it’s adding a stop sign at an especially dangerous intersection or altering federal tax law. Regardless of the scope, these petitions can prove to national, local, and global leaders that it’s time for change. This is only the first step, so if you’re ready to continue making an impact, be sure to get involved, speak out, and vote for lawmakers that share your passions.

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