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, allowed 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 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.

Biden Disables Online Petitions 

On January 20, 2021, the day President Joe Biden took office, the We the People web page’s address started redirecting to the White House's website home address. First reported by the anti-imperialist website and the Ron Paul Institute, the circumstances of the online petitioning system were investigated by Newsweek, reporter Mary Ellen Cagnassola, who received no comment from the White House when seeking comment for a fact-checking article on the Ron Paul Institute’s claims on the removal. Newsweek states that the “We the People” system is no longer to be found on the White House website, noting that, “The reason behind its removal has not been released.”

In reality, the “We the People” petition system had very little substantive effect during the ten years of its off-and-on operation. Many federal processes and all criminal proceedings were off-limits to prospective petitioners, leaving the system functioning mainly as a public relations tool for citizens to express themselves and communicate their concerns to the White House. Few, if any petitions were acted on, and many frivolous petitions were created, such as the playful 2012 petition calling on the federal government to create a Death Star as an economy-stimulating enterprise.

Whether the Biden Administration will respond to calls to reactivate the online petitioning system remains in question.

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 the practice of enslavement 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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Your Citation
Murse, Tom. "How to Petition the Government in Under 5 Minutes." ThoughtCo, Sep. 3, 2021, Murse, Tom. (2021, September 3). How to Petition the Government in Under 5 Minutes. Retrieved from Murse, Tom. "How to Petition the Government in Under 5 Minutes." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 31, 2023).