Some White House staffers, after being deluged with petitions on the White House’s We The People website, are wondering just what they’ve unleashed on themselves. As one White House staff member recently told Mother Jones, “If you had told me a year and a half ago that the White House would be devoting time writing [an official statement] on how Lord Vader could fix our economic woes, I would have just laughed loudly at you.”
This is, of course, in reference to the petition asking the White House to pledge time, money and resources for the construction of a Death Star, by 2016. The petition surpassed the 25,000 signatures required for an official White House response, which went into detail about the problems involved in constructing such a station (can be destroyed by a one-man ship), mentioned the fact that we already have a space station in orbit and are planning missions to the moon and Mars, and stated bluntly that “the Administration does not support blowing up planets.” Interestingly enough, the Galactic Empire issued its own response to that, which can be read here.
However, that’s not all. There have been other petitions that could be deemed as “out there,” including a petition asking for all those who support secession to be deported instead; one asking that the government deport Piers Morgan for attacking gun rights, another asking for a television series featuring Joe Biden, and even a petition asking the White House to release a recipe for its honey-brewed home ale (the White House did, actually, release this recipe).
There is even a petition on the site asking that the White House abolish these petitions. That petition, created on Jan. 13 of this year, only has just over 880 signatures, and states, in its entirety:
“For over a year since the launch of the We the People petitioning system, the American people have been tormented by online ‘activists’ pushing an endless series of White House petitions for the administration to do pointless, inane, irrelevant, wasteful, and occasionally illegal things.
The few petitions on serious topics, like drug legalization, that have garnered enough signatures to warrant a response from the White House have been met with dismissive, patronizing, shallow, and (above all) politically safe non-answer answers.
It is clear that this annoying and utterly useless website is designed to nothing more than channel political activism into a cul-de-sac, and therefore we request you stop this irritating sideshow and shut down petitions.whitehouse.gov.”
Due to the overwhelming number of petitions, the White House has raised the number of signatures required for an official response more than once. The site, started by the Obama administration as a means of transparency and letting the people know they do have a voice, originally only required 5,000 signatures for an official response. It went up to 25,000, and just recently has gone up to 100,000, required within one month of the petition’s creation.
This may or may not stem the tide of seemingly silly petitions that require a response. The Death Star petition only reached just over 34,000 signatures, but some others, like the secessionist petitions (particularly the one for Texas) managed to garner over 100,000 signatures anyway. In the last two months of 2012, it took an average of only nine days for petitions to reach the 25,000 signature mark.
Despite the fact that some in the White House are scratching their heads and wondering just what they’ve done, others are actually happy with the site regardless of the subjects of many of these petitions. As a staffer told Mother Jones, “I like We the People. It puts some bureaucrats out of their comfort zones and reminds everyone we are working for the people.”
John Wonderlich, who is the policy director at the Sunlight Foundation, believes that We the People is a worthy experiment, even with the less serious petitions out there. The White House itself sees We the People as a means of active civil engagement, and a post on the White House’s blog says that the growing number of petitions crossing the threshold required for response “is a good problem to have.” They already have over 9.1 million signatures across all petitions and 5.4 million users on the site.
On their explanation for raising the response requirement to 100,000 signatures in 30 days, they say, “Many times, petitions posted on We the People have a real impact on policy-making.” An article on Politico.com mentions the White House’s response to petitions regarding the anti-piracy bills SOPA and PIPA, saying the White House basically said they stood against such legislation. The official response also mentioned that the administration supports and encourages voluntary measures from ISPs and content creators to combat the problem.
That response ended by saying that there’s a strong need for new tools to help in the fight, while at the same time, preserving innovation, security, openness and free expression on the Internet. The White House did not support any legislation that could have potentially led to any type of Internet censorship. Congressional votes on SOPA and PIPA were postponed in Jan. 2012.
The top 5 petition categories are civil rights (35,596 petitions), government reform (28,900), human rights (28,665), the economy (22,032) and family (21,695). Of all 141,000+ petitions, 161 have received an official response, with those coming from 21 different agencies and departments.