In less than one week, over a million people in the UK have signed a petition asking to cancel Donald Trump's state visit, in light of his recent executive order instituting a Muslim travel ban in the US. Though we have yet to see if this petition will have its intended effect, it's making many ask: do petitions have really impact? And have any ever really worked?
The answer to that big question is: sometimes. To better understand this point, we might look to the biggest petition in UK history. The Chartist petitions — which asked for a variety of reforms, including universal suffrage — were physically hauled into Parliament on several occasions in the early 1800s; one petition was so large it "was rolled on to the floor of the House like a mighty snowball," with up to 3.3 million physical signatures.
The government, however, rejected the petition entirely. That's the thing about petitions: getting one to actually work depends on factors like the issue that is being petitioned, media and political pressure regarding the issue, the general state of public opinion on the issue, and whether or not the institution being petitioned is vulnerable to the petition's proposed consequences.
Businesses, for instance, are more likely to bow to petitions because they stand to lose a lot from negative publicity. Governments, by contrast, are historically less likely to respond to a petition on its own. A list of seven petitions from Change.org that led to White House responses, for instance, doesn't mean that in each case, it was the petition that broke the camel's back — it's also possible that the administration was thinking of doing something about the issue anyway and the petition just added momentum.
And as of now, the UK government's still inviting Donald Trump, despite mass protests and the petition's continued ballooning. But that doesn't mean that petitions are a useless waste of time — sometimes, they lead to very real results. So let's look at some recent petitions that did create real change. Clicktivism, as it's sometimes called, is more nuanced than it might look at first glance.
Better Laws Governing The Care Of Disabled Children
Petitions often create the biggest splashes when they're targeted at particular abuses and offer specific solutions — and the campaign of Valerie Wood-Harper is a good example of this. She produced a hugely successful petition on Change.org demanding an investigation into the death of her disabled brother Quinten, whose case was later determined to have been mishandled by the Oklahoma child welfare agency. Quinten died as a result of neglect by his father — who would be charged and sentenced as a result of the outrage created by the petition and the media attention it received.
And Quinten's death would have further consequences: it also produced the Quinten Douglas Wood Act of 2014, in which child welfare officers in the state of Oklahoma can classify disabled children in the same category as infants or those unable to communicate, and access their school attendance and doctor's records to source possible signs of neglect.
Gay Leaders Allowed To Participate In The Boy Scouts
In 2012, one of the biggest US petitions of the year centered around the Boy Scouts. The Scouts continued to exclude gay scouts and leaders from their organization, despite pressure from activists — so activists began to focus their protest elsewhere: on companies that gave funding to the Boy Scouts. The petitions targeted a number of businesses that supported the Scouts, demanding that they pull their funding unless the group changed their policies.
It was a successful gambit: many of the corporate sponsors, under tremendous public pressure, pulled out of their funding. And though the petition can't be solely credited with the changes that followed — legal issues played a large role — they did likely help set the stage for the changes that unfolded over the next few years.
In 2013, the organization began allowing openly gay scouts to participate. Three years later, in 2015, the Boy Scouts bowed to the weight of public opinion — and the loss of corporate sponsorship — and allowed gay scoutmasters and counsellors (though some troops are still permitted to discriminate).
Freedom For Meriam Ibrahim
Meriam Ibrahim, a pregnant Sudanese Christian woman, was placed on death row in Sudan for the crime of "apostasy" — for marrying a Christian man. A huge part of the public fight against Ibrahim's sentence centered on a petition circulated by Amnesty International, which gained widespread media attention, over a million signatures, and sparked condemnation from governments worldwide. The ensuing potential diplomatic row convinced the Sudanese authorities to free Ibrahim, who fled first to Rome (where she met the Pope) and then to America, where her husband has citizenship.
The case received huge attention in the US media and was celebrated as a victory for public pressure and awareness.
The Californian Recall Election Of 2003
In 2003, Americans were shocked to discover that a petition of 1.3 million Californians had resulted in the election of Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor. The "recall petition," as it's officially known in politics, was the first successful one of its kind in Californian history.
In case this episode has passed from your memory, the petition was organized by politicians hoping to oust the unpopular governor Gray Davis, who'd just been sworn in again months earlier. The public were hugely against Davis, and the petitioners managed to get the 900,000 signatures necessary for a recall election (and several hundred thousand more, to boot) with the help of cash injections and a sympathetic local press. Result: Davis out, Schwarzenegger in. If The Governator ever gets around to running for President, we can say with seriousness that he was propelled there by a petition.
No Fees For Simply Having ATM Cards
The Bank of America pulled back on policies about debit cards in 2011 after a petition from a 22-year-old. The bank was, at the time, proposing a $5 monthly charge for having a debit card — a policy it scrapped after Molly Katchpole brought a petition against the idea. 300,000 people ended up signing the petition, media got involved, and the Bank of America pulled the plug on its idea.
Putting Historical Women On Bank Notes
The 2014 campaign in the UK to put historical women on banknotes had a couple of interesting aspects. One was that the campaign wasn't only limited to petitions. The campaign's originator, feminist activist Caroline Criado-Perez, started a petition in response to the fact that the Bank Of England was issuing new notes without a single female historical face among them. It rapidly gained a lot of ground, but Criado-Perez herself noted that the petition itself was only the beginning, resulting in a "pat on the head and ‘thanks for the suggestion’ sort of reply;" the real pressure came from political support and threats of legal action.
The results were also intriguing. It was a highly successful campaign; the new £10 note will feature Jane Austen, while a new Scottish £5 note will feature Scottish author Nan Shepard. It also, however, led to a disgusting outbreak of sexual assault threats against Criado-Perez on social media, which resulted in jail sentences for several trolls.
All this shows that petitions aren't just a useless shout into the void. Sure, sometimes they do nothing but make the person signing feel like they've done their good deed for the day; but on occasion, they can have very real consequences.