With a glut of bizarre petitions—say, to officially recognize the Sasquatch as an indigenous species—that might have reached the threshold of requiring an official White House answer, an Executive Branch experiment in direct-ish democracy is raising the bar at how many signatures it takes before a response is developed.
The Obama administration's website We The People started its run in September 2011 requiring 5,000 online signatures to be submitted in 30 days before it guaranteed some sort of a response (even if that response was along the lines of “The Short Answer is No …”). That bar proved much too low, and a month later it pushed the requirement to 25,000. Starting now, the threshold is 100,000 signatures for any new petitions.
As Macon Phillips, who directs the White House's digital strategy, wrote on the White House blog:
When we first raised the threshold — from 5,000 to 25,000 — we called it "a good problem to have." Turns out that "good problem" is only getting better, so we're making another adjustment to ensure we’re able to continue to give the most popular ideas the time they deserve.
In the first 10 months of 2012, it took an average of 18 days for a new petition to cross the 25,000-signature threshold. In the last two months of the year, that average time was cut in half to just 9 days, and most petitions that crossed the threshold collected 25,000 signatures within five days of their creation. More than 60 percent of the petitions to cross threshold in all of 2012 did so in the last two months of the year.
If you missed the hullabaloo over secessionists asking the Obama administration if they could kindly bow out of the United States or some of the other outlandish notions (like building a “death star”) that have been requested among a surprisingly number of worthy, or at least well-intentioned, brethren requests, or you’re not one of the more than 5 million citizens who have signed a petition, you might be unfamiliar with We The People. The process is as follows: Dream up a bright idea, register yourself and your petition at the White House website, and wait for droves of like-minded people to cyber-sign their agreement. All very Schoolhouse Rock, except, of course, most of the petitions don’t really go anywhere. One of the latest petitions? Lower the threshold back to 25,000.
Phillips' blog post also has some facts and figures on the website’s analytics. There were 141,310 petitions when the item was posted this morning, with 9,178,278 signatures garnered. The most signatures any petition has received so far is 318,283. Some 162 petitions have received an official response, although often like requests get rolled into a single answer.
Here are a sampling of some recent petitions, both that made the bar and that didn't, and that stretch credulity or seem like genuine requests for policy action:
Request:Deport British Citizen Piers Morgan for Attacking 2nd Amendment
Response: When Discussing the Second Amendment, Keep the First in Mind Too
Request: Issue an executive order forcing NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to return the New Orleans Saints 2nd Round Draft Pick.
Response: Currently at 186 signatures
Request: Ban Assault Drones
Response: Currently at 278 signatures
Request: impeach Obama for blatant disregard to the United States Of America's constitution and Amendments.
Response: Currently at 1,439 signatures—this time. This is a hardy perennial in the website's garden; one of its antecedents received the "short answer" response cited above.
At least these people hit on the right tier of government, even if they don't realize—willfully or not—that the power to impeach lies with Congress. Pity those who call for "Impeach Governor Andrew Cuomo," who want the feds to act on a state matter.
Request: The U.S. Government Must Redress Wrongs Against the Chagossians
Response: This one of a special subset of petitions calling for the U.S. to essentially right wrongs beyond its borders. In this case, the Chagossians are residents of the Chagos Archipelago, a chain of islands in the Indian Ocean administered by the Brits. They were moved off (resettled) to create a military preserve, Diego Garcia (mostly used, we must admit, by the Americans). The area may, in the future, be recrafted as a marine preserve. So while the U.S. may have a larger than usual dog in this fight, there are also requests for things like "The East Sea – a FALSE history in our textbooks!"/"Sea of Japan -the authentic history in our textbooks! We are teaching our children the authentic history, so why change?" and "recognize that the Islamic Government of Iran is violating the fundamental rights of Iran's Azerbaijani ethnic minority."
Request: Mandate the AG to seek sanctions, costs, and attorneys' fees to recover taxpayer funds used to defend birther lawsuits.
Response: Currently at 1,095 signatures
Request: EXAMINE THE GOVERNMENT’S FAILURE TO INVESTIGATE AND PROSECUTE CHURCH OF SCIENTOLOGY CRIME, FRAUD AND ABUSE.
Response: Ah, in all caps yet! This is the sort of request that gets a pretty standard response: "The We the People Terms of Participation explain that "the White House may decline to address certain procurement, law enforcement, adjudicatory, or similar matters properly within the jurisdiction of federal departments or agencies, federal courts, or state and local government." The Department of Justice is charged with investigating federal crimes and enforcing federal criminal laws. Accordingly, the White House declines to comment on the specific law enforcement matter raised in this petition."
Request: Legalize raw milk sales on a federal level
Response: Regardless of where you stand on this issue, it approaches the kind of issue I would have hoped the site addressed. The administration must agree; the answer was delivered by policy adviser Doug McKalip, who wrote, in essence, we appreciate your stand but politely disagree: "In this case, we support pasteurization to protect the safety of the milk supply because the health risks associated with raw milk are well documented."
Request: Reform the coinage system.
Response: Here's another right place to ask entry, especially given the hoopla on the trillion-dollar coin. The response, from Treasurer of the United States Rosie Rios, basically says yes, you have a point, and we're working on it. We got rid of the dollar coin, and if you'd just get over that attachment to pennies and nickels then we'd be talking.