In Review: The Most Memorable We the People Petitions
Here’s how Americans used a first-of-its-kind digital government platform to exercise their First Amendment right.
The right to petition your government is guaranteed by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
-The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution
Under President Obama, the American people were empowered to exercise their first amendment right to petition like never before. We the People, a first-of-its-kind digital platform, gave American citizens a way to speak directly to the White House and become agents for change. We the People wasn’t the first online petition platform where you could build your own petition, share it, and collect signatures. But, it was the first one built by a government that gave citizens a reliable way to have a conversation with their government about the issues that mattered to them.
Once any petition gathered 100,000 signatures, the We the People team would work with teams across the executive branch of government to hunt down answers and draft a response. This wasn’t always easy. Petitions are not usually congratulatory, but are meant to call our attention to an issue that signers think we need to pay attention to, that we should weigh in on, or that we may hold an opposing position on than they do. While we drafted responses to these difficult petitions, they often prompted conversations at the highest levels.
We considered this evidence of the platform’s great success. Petitions, at their best, are a way for citizens to participate in the process of governing and have their voices heard.
From its founding in September 2011, We the People has gathered approximately 480,000 petitions, 29 million users, and 40 million signatures. We hosted hack-a-thons, launched an API, and saw a petition lead to a legislative fix that the President signed into law.
This platform offers one of the most direct connections between action and change in U.S. government, ensuring that that an Administration is not only open about the decisions it makes, but accountable as well.
Here are a few of our favorite We the People moments.
2011: The First Response
On October 26, 2011 — just a month after launch — one of President Obama’s top education advisors, Roberto Rodriguez, issued the first response to a petition created through We the People. Here are the first few lines:
Thank you for taking the time to participate in the “We the People” petition process. We launched this online tool as a way of hearing directly from you, and are pleased that you have responded by presenting this idea. We agree that reducing the burden of student loans is an effective way to stimulate the economy and save taxpayer dollars. That’s why we’re excited to announce a new policy that speaks to the concerns expressed in this petition.
Take a look back at how this platform first came together:
2012: The Petition Response Heard ‘Round the Galaxy
In August of 2012, we published the source code for We the People — opening up a world of possibility for people who wanted to petition. Having the source code available for free use, by anybody, meant that anyone from the smallest organizations to civic hackers to local governments or other countries could build their own petitions platform and begin advocating for change.
In November of 2012, a petition crossed the then-25,000 signature threshold asking the Administration to begin construction of a Death Star, the galactic superweapon made famous by the Star Wars film franchise. While the construction of a modern-day Death Star would be impossible — the Administration felt it was, of course, worthy of response. Paul Shawcross, one of the President’s science and technology advisors, pulled no punches: “The Administration does not support blowing up planets,” he wrote. “Why would we spend countless taxpayer dollars on a Death Star with a fundamental flaw that can be exploited by a one-man starship?”
However, he then went on to address the numerous ways that the Administration supported efforts in STEM and scientific research — leveraging the petition signers interest in science fiction to connect them with our real-life scientific research efforts, like the International Space Station.
The response was picked up widely by BuzzFeed, the Huffington Post, and even Space.com. Darth Vader has yet to weigh in.
2013: The First We the People Hackathon
This may not be a petition, but it was a big deal. In May of 2013, we launched our first version of the We the People API, allowing users to use third-party platforms, including other petitions services, their own websites, or their own blogs, to share We the People petitions. Any signatures collected through third-party sites using the API, once validated, would count towards a petition’s objective of meeting the 100,000-signature threshold needed for an official White House response.
The We the People API represented a strong step toward making it easier for people to petition their governments. Equally as important, it also served as a model for a new way of delivering government services online.
As part of the API’s launch, we also invited dozens of programmers and tech experts to the White House to spend the day working alongside us, using the API, as part of our first-ever White House Open Data Day Hackathon. For nine hours, these two groups solved problems, shared code, and built cool things.
2014: President Obama Signs into Law a Provision on Freedom in Choosing a Cell Phone Network
In August 2014, President Obama signed a bill that ensured consumers could use their mobile devices on the network of their choice. This marked the first time that a We the People petition led to a legislative change.
After Congress sent him a bill that addressed the problem, the President credited the petition signers, saying, “Last year, in response to a We the People petition from consumers across our country, my Administration called for allowing Americans to use their phones or mobile devices on any network they choose … The bill Congress passed today is another step toward giving ordinary Americans more flexibility and choice, so that they can find a cell phone carrier that meets their needs and their budget.”
2015: The President Awards Yogi Berra the Presidential Medal of Freedom
In early 2015, a petition called on the White House to award professional baseball player Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his military service and civil rights activism.
Later in the year, the White House proudly announced — including to signers of that petition –that President Obama had awarded Yogi Berra the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
We also made a big change to the platform that year. In July of 2015, we announced a few big changes for We the People — namely, how we responded to petitions. From this day forward, we committed to responding to any petition that crossed the 100,000 signature threshold within 60 days. We also answered a backlog of 20 petitions, providing responses to more than 2.5 million petition signers in a single day.
This update signaled a new, more responsive era for We the People.
2015: The White House Calls for an End to Conversion Therapies on Minors
Moved by the tragic suicide of a transgender teenager whose parents had forced her to attend conversion therapy, citizens used a We the People petition to support a ban on the practice. In a response, the White House did just that, and President Obama threw his support behind state-level efforts to ban conversation therapy for minors. Prior to this response, the White House had not taken an official stance on the issue.
“This Administration believes that young people should be valued for who they are, no matter what they look like, where they’re from, the gender with which they identify, or who they love.”
2016: Vice President Biden Responds to a Petition on Gun Violence
In June of 2016, following a few high profile incidents of gun violence, a petition was created to ban the AR-15 from civilian ownership. After the petition reached the signature threshold, signers received an impassioned response directly from the Vice President himself.
If taking commonsense steps to reduce gun violence had the potential to save even one life, it would be worth doing. But it has the potential to save far more than that.
You know that. And that is why you spoke up. That matters. But the fact is that we have three separate but equal branches of a government for a reason.
And so, to speak directly to those members of Congress who, in the wake of this most recent, most horrific killing of our citizens, might be considering stepping up and getting this done once and for all, I’d like to remind you that this will not stop on its own. It will not stop. In the three and a half years since Newtown, there have been at least 1,002 mass shootings in this country. At least 1,135 people killed, and 3,953 wounded. That includes 49 killed and 53 wounded in Orlando.
You know in your heart that this is the right thing to do. You know that by stepping up, your action has the potential to create a domino effect. Have the courage to do it.
We have done it before. We can do it again.
Later, Valerie Jarrett hosted a digital call-in where she fielded people’s concerns and questions about gun violence.
This petition was an example of how Administration officials at the highest levels were willing and eager to connect with their constituencies — and have honest, difficult conversations — on important issues.
2016: Late Night Talk Show Host Bill Maher Gets His Wish
In the beginning of 2015, Bill Maher helped launch a We the People petition calling for President Obama to appear on his television show, Real Time with Bill Maher. The petition quickly crossed the threshold and — a little less than a year letter — signers got their wish. The news of the President’s November appearance on Real Time broke via a special video, featuring Bill Maher, that was sent to petition signers before any official announcement was made.
Signed a petition or remember one that meant a lot to you? Share it with us here.
The White House is known as the People’s House, but not everyone gets an opportunity to come by and see what happens…medium.com
By Kori Schulman, Deputy Chief Digital Officer, serving since 2009medium.com