Petitions: how they work (and if they even do)

 Petitions do little in themselves to create change, but they do raise awareness and add public pressure to legislators. 

Online petitions have been growing in popularity since the large resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement this summer. But do they actually work to create change?

Yes and no.

The main thing that petitions do is raise awareness about particular issues, according to CNN. The more people that see, sign or share the petition, the more people that know about the problem the petition aims to address. Therefore, petitions function primarily as an awareness-raising tool. However, once more people know about the issues at hand, it is more likely that signers take direct action, such as calling and pressuring their legislators to enact legislation to combat the problem.

Petitions can act as a source of public pressure on community leaders or politicians, but petitions in themselves do not do much to enact change. The petition works best when coupled with action. Alone, it cannot do much.

Petitions are occasionally used as a fundraising tool: some people choose to donate to causes through petitions sites such as However, Business Insider points out that when well-meaning people donate through these platforms, the website often keeps the profits and uses them for their own benefit. Thus, the money meant for a specific cause does not actually go to aiding that cause. Therefore, it is much better to donate directly to organizations rather than going through a petition website.

Certain types of petitions can lead to a proposition showing up on a ballot. For example, in the state of California, if a person files for their petition to have a ballot title, collects enough signatures and follows the legal process, then their petition will show up on the ballot for voters to decide on. In fact, petitions are how propositions end up on the ballot to begin with.

But petitions are a tricky thing. If a person sits down each day to sign each and every petition that has entered their inbox, but takes no further action, it is likely that they are not making much of a difference. However, the more signatures a petition has, the more likely it is to pressure public officials to enact change, and the more likely the problem is to garner public attention. So choosing to not sign a petition can be a problem as well.

The moral of the petition story is that petitions don’t do much on their own — but they do something. For a petition to be most effective, it must be coupled with direct action. Petitions are frequently what inspire people to take direct action, however, so they are often the starting point for change.

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