A petition can be a great way to show public support for an initiative. When decision-makers see a large number of signatures, they know that many people have taken the time to learn about the issue and voice their support. Petitions are most impactful when they request a clear action or decision from a specific person or group. As a petition-writer, it’s important that you draft your petition so that it’s addressed to the politician or organization that has the power to enact change.
Do Your Research
Let’s say that you wanted to change the name of a street in your town. In order to draft your petition, you’ll need to research the entity that decides the street names. It’s unlikely that you’ll have success if you address your petition to the President of the United States or the town librarian. You need to find out which local government body makes decisions about such matters. When it comes to deciding a street name, you would probably need to contact your city council to inquire how the names of streets come to be. The city council staff members may even be able to direct you to an existing form so that you can make a formal request.
In the course of your research, you may find that a petition is unnecessary. There may be an existing protocol for making a request and engaging community members in a decision. Still, in some cases, a petition will be the best course of action. If that’s the case, find out how many signatures you need. For example, to get a constitutional amendment on the 2020 ballot in Florida, you would need to collect more than 766,200 signatures. Find out as much as you can about petitions that have been successful in the past.
The information you’ll collect from potential signers will likely vary, depending upon the organization that will receive your petition. For a local petition, the signer’s printed name, phone number, and signature may suffice. On the other hand, most national petitions require additional identifying information, such as a zip code. Contact the organization that has the ability to take action on your petition. Ask them what information you’ll need to provide about petition signers. Keep in mind that asking for more information may decrease the total number of petition forms you receive, so don’t add any extraneous form fields that you don’t need.
You’ll also need to do research to determine whether there are any counter arguments to your suggested course of action. Learn as much as you can about relevant rules, laws, and budgets restrictions. Collecting this information early in the process will not only allow you to create the strongest petition possible, but it will also help you to answer questions from the community once you begin collecting signatures.
Draft Your Demands
When writing your petition, the centerpiece of your draft should be a concrete demand for action. This demand should be addressed to the people who have the power to make the decision. Let’s look at a few petition examples. The first two sample petitions below resulted in favorable decisions. The third example garnered more than 100,000 signatures, and prompted a response letter from the White House.
- I’m asking for your support to encourage the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) to change the name of Waldo Tunnel to the Robin Williams Tunnel.
- Vandegrift High School has been open for 11 years, and it has had a full recycling program for zero of those years. Show your school board that recycling is a priority for you by signing this petition and get Vandy Recycling NOW!
- Recent reports suggest President Donald Trump plans to defund the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. We ask President Trump to support the arts by not defunding the NEA and NEH.
A clear request forms the backbone of a strong petition. In the examples above, the authors outlined a specific goal and directed the petition to specific decision-makers—the California Department of Transportation, the school board, and President Trump.
The remaining text in the petition should provide evidence that shows:
- Why the change is reasonable
- Why a decision is necessary
- Why the decision is important to community stakeholders
- Potential outcomes if the change is not implemented
Prepare the Petition and Supporting Material
Now that you have the text for your petition letter ready, you’ll need to spell-check and proofread your document before printing it. Remember that your demand should appear in the first paragraph. Be sure that your petition title and petition text fit on one page. Better yet, keep your text as short as possible. Long, hard-to-read essays will result in fewer signatures.
Based on your research, put together a supplementary fact sheet. This can give interested community members statistics, charts, and graphs as supporting evidence. Also, your supplementary materials can list additional actions that your target audience should take in order to support your cause. For instance, you could give an address and sample letter, so that a petition-signer can send a letter to a legislator.
Lastly, you’ll need to prepare a signature form with all the necessary fields—name, phone number, email address, etc.—that you identified in your research phase. You should be ready for a large number of people to sign, especially if you have an impressive number of signatures as your end goal. Don’t be caught empty-handed! Prepare more signature forms than you think you’ll need.
Collect Signatures in Person
Begin by collecting signatures in public places with a paper petition. If people seem confused, if they ask the same questions over and over, or if they find parts of your petition unclear, you may want to start over with a new petition statement or provide more supplementary materials to address common concerns.
By talking to people, you can quickly discover an opening statement that works. Through trial and error, you’ll develop the most persuasive argument possible. This will help you when it comes time to start promoting your petition to a wider audience. You can only approach so many people in person—even when you’re on a busy street corner in a city like Miami or New York. Email, social media, and online platforms will enable you to communicate to a broader audience.
Launch an Online Campaign
Once you feel confident that your campaign resonates with people, you can launch a website and social media to promote your petition. You can also choose from a number of online petition tools and petition websites, including Change.org, We the People, MoveOn, and StandUnited, which will make the process of collecting signatures more streamlined. Be sure that the online version of your petition has the same text and form fields as your printed petition. You’ll want to be able to combine the total number of signatures you receive, counting both in-person and online signatures together.
Once you have a good petition with a large number of signatures, you can also reach out to local media. If your petition appeals to a regional audience, a local TV or print journalist may want to cover the story. Controversial petitions are more likely to receive attention, so you should be prepared to communicate your point of view in a debate or a panel discussion.
You should plan to follow up with the people who signed your petition, letting them know when your petition hits certain benchmarks. For instance, when your petition reaches 100,000 signatures, you may want to send an email congratulating the signers on the milestone. Within the email, you can share a direct link to the petition and encourage the recipient to share the link with a friend.
Submit Your Petition
After you’ve met your goal, you can hand your petition to the decision-maker. If possible, try to set up an old-fashioned meeting. Sometimes, the decision-maker will decline a meeting. That’s okay! You can bring your petition to a public event, such as a city council meeting or a school board meeting. You can also call or email to try to facilitate a conversation.
Go into any conversation with a decision-maker prepared to articulate your case and negotiate on behalf of your petition-signers. After the meeting, you should thank the decision-maker and update your community members on the progress. Even if the decision-maker initially declines your request, your work is far from over. You can continue adding names to your petition, organizing the community, and reaching out to media outlets until you accomplish your goals.