How to Petition the Government in Under 5 Minutes

White House Allows Americans to Petition Government on the Web

Petition Signing
Young Men Signing Petition On City Sidewalk. ML Harris/Getty Images

Got a gripe with the government? Exercise your rights.

Congress is prohibited from restricting the right of American citizens to petition the government under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, adopted in 1791.

“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, United States Constitution.

The authors of the amendment surely had no idea just how easy it would become to petition the government in the age of the Internet more than 200 years later.

President Barack Obama, whose White House was the first to use social media such as Twitter and Facebook, launched the first online tool allowing citizens to petition the government through the White House website in 2011.

The program, called We the People, allows users to create and sign petitions on any topic.

When he announced the program in September 2011, President Obama said, “When I ran for this office, I pledged to make government more open and accountable to its citizens. That's what the new We the People feature on WhiteHouse.gov is all about - giving Americans a direct line to the White House on the issues and concerns that matter most to them.”

The Obama White House often portrayed itself as one of the most transparent to the public in modern history.

Obama's first executive order, for example, directed the Obama White House to shed more light on presidential records. Obama, however, eventually came under fire for operating behind closed doors.

We the People Petitions Under President Trump

When Republican President Donald Trump took over the White House in 2017, the future of the We the People online petition system looked doubtful.

On January 20, 2017 — Inauguration Day — the Trump administration deactivated all existing petitions on the We the People website. While new petitions could be created, signatures to them were not being counted. While the website was later fixed and is currently fully functional, the Trump administration has not responded to any of the petitions.

Under the Obama administration’s control, any petition that collected 100,000 signatures within 30 days was to receive an official response. Petitions that gathered 5,000 signatures would be sent to the “appropriate policymakers.”  The Obama White House said any official response would be not only by emailed to all petition-signers but posted on its website as well. 

While the 100,000 signature requirement and White House response promises remain the same under the Trump administration, as of November 7, 2017, the administration had not officially responded to any of the 13 petitions that had reached the 100,000 signature goal, nor has it stated that it intends to respond in the future.

How to Petition the Government Online

No matter the White House’s response to them, if any, the We the People tool allows Americans over the age of 13 to create and sign petitions on www.whitehouse.gov asking the Trump administration to "take action on a range of important issues facing our country." All that is required is a valid email address.

People who wish to create a petition are required to create a free Whitehouse.gov account. To sign an existing petition, users need only enter their name and their email address. For identity verification, they will receive an email with a web link that they must click to confirm their signature. A Whitehouse.gov account is not needed to sign petitions.

The We the People website calls creating or signing a petition as “just the first step,” suggesting that concerned citizens build support for a petition and gather even more signatures. “Use email, Facebook, Twitter and word of mouth to tell your friends, family and coworkers about the petitions you care about," the White House states.

As was the case under the Obama administration, petitions involving ongoing criminal investigations or criminal justice court proceedings in the United States and certain other internal processes of the federal government are not subject to petitions created on the We the People website.

What It Means to Petition the Government

The right of Americans to petition the government is guaranteed under the Constitution's First Amendment.

The Obama administration, acknowledging the importance of the right, said: "Throughout our nation's history, petitions have served as a way for Americans to organize around issues that matter to them, and tell their representatives in government where they stand."

Petitions played important roles, for example, in ending slavery and guaranteeing women the right to vote.

Other Ways to Petition the Government

Though the Obama administration was the first to allow Americans to petition the government through an official U.S. government website, other countries had already allowed such activities online.

The United Kingdom, for example, operates a similar system called e-petitions. That country's system requires citizens to collect at least 100,000 signatures on their petition on their online petitions before they can be debated in the House of Commons.

The major political parties in the United States also allow Internet users to submit suggestions that are directed to members of Congress. There are also many privately run website that allow Americans to sign petitions that are then forwarded to members of the House of Representatives and Senate.

Of course, Americans can still write letters to their representatives in Congress, send them email or meet with them face-to-face.

Updated by Robert Longley

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Murse, Tom. "How to Petition the Government in Under 5 Minutes." ThoughtCo, Nov. 7, 2017, thoughtco.com/petition-the-government-in-5-minutes-3321819. Murse, Tom. (2017, November 7). How to Petition the Government in Under 5 Minutes. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/petition-the-government-in-5-minutes-3321819 Murse, Tom. "How to Petition the Government in Under 5 Minutes." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/petition-the-government-in-5-minutes-3321819 (accessed January 21, 2018).