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 of social change.

An online petition created about a year ago calling for justice for George Floyd is the most signed petition on Change.org 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
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Do petitions actually work?

Petitions are just one part of an overall strategy for change. They can serve several purposes:

  • Let decision-makers know what the public is thinking.
  • Suggest to media that an issue has enough public interest to do a story.
  • Help an organization build a list of people who are interested in an issue.
  • Bring about additional action and raise money.

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 have less official power. 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 broad audience 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
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A word of warning

With an online petition, it’s important to do research on the sponsoring organization or individual. 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 a potentially unknown group that can use it for reasons you did not intend such as placing you on an email list or selling your personal information to outside organizations. It’s always best to do your homework 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, and be sure to review any terms of use you are asked to confirm.

Man signing a petition at a protest
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Know what you’re getting into

Once you determine that an organization and the cause are legitimate, there are other issues to consider:

  • Is the change possible? Has the organization broken the problem down into winnable steps?
  • Are you comfortable with being asked for money?
  • Are you willing to take further action, if asked, such as sharing the campaign on social media, being an advocate in your community, or asking others for financial support?

How to maximize your impact

Signing a petition shouldn’t be the end of your activism. 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, consider sharing the petition with your friends and family. If you did any research before or after signing, 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 a change. But it’s important to understand the limitations of petitions and the implications of signing one.

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