Sign a petition or write a letter? It is true that many signatures on a petition is meaningful but such petitions also has its limits. Legislators look at the petition signatures and note the number but essentially ignore what activists see as their “powerful voice” they intended the petition to represent.
It’s a case of “the easiest way is also not the most effective.” Clicking on to a form letter ends up to be not only a very soft message to the targeted audience. Moreover, the person signing thinks that they have done their good deed of the day and takes no further action. For example, last year, almost 4,000 comments were submitted to a legislator in Pennsylvania and 95% of them were rejected as “form letters.” That doesn’t mean they didn’t represent some level of people’s voices but were not as meaningful.
When you look at what citizens did in NC around fracking regulations, where they worked to get specific comments from people who may have use a model predefined set of issues, but many comments were personalized, you get a very different story. According to an article in the NC paper News Observer the N.C. Mining and Energy Commission is plowing through a mountain of public comments on its proposed fracking standards with less than a month left to fine-tune the safety rules for shale gas drilling. State officials estimate that more than 100,000 comments flooded in by the Sept. 30 deadline and the finally tally could approach 200,000.
The number of submission was so large that the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) officials are not sure they have sufficient memory space on the agency’s hard drives to post the comments online for public view. DENR have assigned at least eight extra staffers, including from Gov. Pat McCrory’s office, to sort through public remarks and enter them into a database.
That action made a difference at a very high level. However the people power could have been even stronger if everyone said a little more than “don’t frack.” According to the commissioner, “about half of the comments are repetitive ‘don’t frack’ and they don’t really count, if you know what I mean.”
This was successful with the chairman of the commission saying, there is no question that we will recommend some adjustment to the rules, how much is not clear. It was the volume and the individual comments not just signing on to a model set of comments that made the difference and has moved the needle. So think about giving people talking points to actually submit individual comments that are not all exactly the same and you may see the difference, next time you want to move a person with authority or regulations. Some people will only act with a sign-on but encouraging one more step, making that step as easy as possible could increase your power. No one ever said that activism was easy, but it’s not all that hard either.