Petitioning for Democracy

January 21st, 2012 · No Comments · Uncategorized

By Denise Tessier

How’s this for serendipity?

Having just read Bloomberg Business’s account of Google’s estimated 7 million signers to its petition protesting anti-Internet piracy legislation, I decided a post about the role of petitions in today’s democracy was overdue.

Then, refreshing my email to get the Bloomberg link I’d sent myself, in came the serendipity: a mass-mailed message from Sen. Dede Feldman, D.-N.M. saying she’d just posted a petition at SignOn.org asking for support of  legislation that would give New Mexico cities, counties and the governor the power to ban fireworks during dry times.

In asking for petition support of Senate Bill 5, she had perfectly made my point.

Further research Friday turned up another New Mexico petition event: Change.org was reporting that the “dangerous animal” legislation Sen. Sue Wilson-Beffort, R-N.M., had proposed to impose on pit bulls was already dead because the governor and  legislators had received more than 463 pages of petition signatures from outraged pit bull fans.

Citizens – and now even legislators like Feldman – are using petitions not only to call attention to injustices and to chastise offending retailers, but to influence Congress and the President as well.

For a legislator like Feldman, the petition could be the tool in her persuasion kit that finally leads to enactment of a measure that to some is a no-brainer, yet has failed in the Legislature twice.

In the aftermath of her North Valley district’s bosque fire of 2003, the bill was tabled when a lobbyist for the fireworks industry gave a tearful, “award-winning performance. . .” she wrote in her newsletter last July. Then, during last year’s special session — after a million New Mexico acres had burned — it “got caught up in the tension” between the Governor and the Legislature over redistricting. She wrote:

Legislative leaders saw Governor-sponsored bills like the ban on illegal drivers’ licenses and social promotion as a time-consuming diversion from our constitutional duty of redistricting.  Fireworks fell into that category too, and I was unable to convince them that this was an emergency.

This session, she’ll have signatures from her petitions to drive home that urgency – petitions which, according to her newsletter, have been circulating even before her request hit my email box Friday (Jan. 20).

As Bloomberg noted Friday in its report on the millions who signed Google’s protest:

Websites are upending traditional lobbying in Washington. . .

And they were having the intended effect:

After several prominent Web sites went dark Wednesday to protest federal legislation aimed at stopping online piracy, support for the House and Senate bills appears to be waning.

Noting that millions of signatures were gathered in that single day, the story continued that:

. . .By comparison, it took Wisconsin voters seeking a recall election of Republican Governor Scott Walker about two months to collect 1.9 million signatures.

As Bloomberg pointed out, “The tech world is well-acquainted with the months-long battle over the House’s Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Senate’s Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA). But many Web users only learned about the bills during the blackout protest by Web sites such as Wikipedia, Reddit and WordPress.”

Similarly, email alerts inform Web users about all kinds of issues of which they might not have heard. Feldman is drawing attention to her bill with this message:

Hit by extreme drought, New Mexico suffered devastating forest fires this year. And yet even after these tragedies, the governor and local officials do not have the basic authority to ban the use and sale of fireworks when fire danger is high.

This doesn’t make sense. But the good news is that the New Mexico legislature is considering a common sense bill, SB 5, that would give the governor and city and county officials the ability to ban fireworks when fire danger is extreme.

That’s why I created a petition to the New Mexico House and Senate on SignOn.org, which says:

Please support SB 5, which would give the governor and city and county officials the ability to ban the sale and use of fireworks in times of high fire danger.

Feldman’s email – and Wilson-Beffort’s gaffe — have provided valuable New Mexico angles for this post. But I’d actually been mulling the topic as appropriate for ABQJournalWatch since Nov. 4, when the Journal published an editorial giving credit to “robust competition” as changing Bank of America’s mind on charging its now infamous $5 debit card fee.

The editorial stated that “nothing makes business switch gears like customers switching where they do business. And that’s what happened.”

Nowhere in the editorial did the Journal credit the petition movement. And that’s really “what happened.”

However, the very next day, the Journal redeemed itself with a news story and photo on B6 that gave credit where it really was due. “Nanny Credited for BofA Retreat: Woman’s petition helped lead to end of debit card fee plan” headlined the Associated Press story, in which Molly Katchpole, 22, was quoted as saying:

When I first started the petition, and even now, people were saying, ‘Just close your bank account and go to another bank.’ I think people are forgetting that not everybody can easily close their bank and join a credit union. There are some neighborhoods in this country where there’s only one bank.

Her petition had stated, in part:

The American people bailed out Bank of America during a financial crisis the banks helped create. . . . How can you justify squeezing another $60 a year from your debit card customers? This is despicable.

More than 300,000 people signed her petition, and other major banks canceled tests of their own debit card fees, leaving BofA dangling as the sole bad guy in the public eye. It’s pretty powerful stuff.

In the past, federal agencies like the Department of Agriculture and the FCC have ignored thousands of comments from the public in ruling with corporations on issues like genetically modified seeds and labeling, or allowing the monopolization of media by a just a few.

Now, in the online petition age, when the Department of Agriculture rules it’s OK for Monsonto to market untested genetically modified corn to humans without labeling, consumers can take another tack: They can petition grocers to refuse to carry unlabeled GMO corn.

Petitioners are claiming credit and victories on everything from getting Glenn Beck fired to getting J.C. Penney to stop selling a “sexist” T-shirt online to persuading President Obama to reject the Keystone XL pipeline plan. And while it didn’t change things for the workers, an Omaha Target employee’s petition made the nation aware that commencing “Black Friday” shopping at midnight was forcing some Americans to miss Thanksgiving gatherings as a result.

One caveat: Anyone can post a petition, so the responsible citizen needs to do a little homework before signing on in reaction to an emotional appeal. My antennae went up when, last March, a Change.org organizer launched a petition that accused a New York Times reporter of blaming an 11-year-old Texas girl for her own rape. As a life-long reporter, I had to see for myself and came to a completely different conclusion after reading James McKinley’s piece on the crime.

In my view, the comments McKinley got from neighbors reflected the attitude of the townspeople, not the reporter, and were part of the story. Yet, Shelby Knox’s petition garnered enough traction that it was picked up in the blogosphere (including the Huffington Post) and, 40,000 electronic signatures later, resulted in a blog statement from the Times’ Public Editor, who said the “public outrage was understandable.”

McKinley later did a follow-up, with a female co-reporter this time, producing a story that focused much more on the victim.

Knox, unhappy with the blog statement’s lack of apology, launched yet another follow-up petition: “Tell the New York Times to apologize for blaming a child for her gang rape.” Yet, (I contend) the article didn’t blame the child. I feel McKinley was unfairly singled out (and got a harsh lesson in sensitivity), and I now view with skepticism petition requests from Knox.

Judicious participation is necessary for petitions to retain their power.

And that power plays a critical role in today’s democracy, or what’s left of it. For the reality is that:

  • A disturbingly high number of our congressmen and senators put the desires of the corporations that financially back them before the needs of the public they are supposed to represent.
  • Even the Supreme Court has gone beyond the scope of a case in order to represent corporate interests, notably with Citizens United, in which the court ruled that corporations are persons whose money is the same as free speech – and therefore their flow of influential money is protected.
  • Much of the corporate media parrots the corporate line of think tanks and covers only part of the news, with Fox News openly championing a single political party.

In today’s world, petitions – and their sister tool, the boycott — have become perhaps the most effective way for citizens to make their voices heard.

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