Want the White House to tell you whether or not it’s pardoning a whistleblower? Or take a position on modifying the technology you own? Or explain why America can’t build a Death Star? For the past six years, you could do all these things through We the People, an imperfect but valuable petition system that gave ordinary people a direct line to the president. But we’re over two months into the Trump administration, and it’s not clear whether the system is still active, or what its future holds.
We the People survived Trump’s White House website reorganization, unlike several other government pages, but it’s not in great shape. You can create an account, publish a new petition, or sign an existing one. The page for responses, however, seems to have been removed. Old petitions are accessible through the Obama administration archive, but there’s no sign that Trump’s White House will respond to the seven petitions that reached their 100,000-signature threshold after he took office, including a request to release Trump’s tax returns, two petitions to preserve the National Endowment for the Humanities and National Endowment for the Arts, and one to let American farmers grow industrial hemp. A White House spokesperson did not respond to an email requesting comment.
It’s easy to mock online petitions in general, and We the People certainly had issues under the Obama administration. The White House took two years to respond to a request to pardon Edward Snowden, although it later promised updates in 60 days or less. Its answers often restated existing positions. It had to answer some frivolous or unconstitutional petitions, like a request to deport Justin Bieber or ban the song “Meet the Flockers.”
You could get the White House’s attention for any reason, if enough people cared
But We the People also made the administration clarify its stance on high-profile legislation like the privacy-threatening CISPA cybersecurity bill, or issues like police body camera policies. In one of the system’s big successes, it kicked off a major push to protect cellphone unlocking, a win for consumers who wanted to switch carriers but keep their phones. Petitions that might have sounded silly to some people, like a request to recognize e-sports as sports, put real problems involving athlete visas on the administration’s radar. Questions that were silly still served a symbolic purpose. If enough people supported you, you could get the White House to explain its position on any issue, no matter how bizarre.
This principle ought to be something that a president like Donald Trump — who loves speaking to the public through rallies and Twitter — would want to uphold. Petitions must gather 100,000 signatures within 30 days to earn a response, so if you believe the “elite” media is untrustworthy, it would ensure there’s popular demand behind a question. More than anything, it would prove that Trump cares about citizens as more than a passive, cheering audience.
The Trump administration has had a rocky start, so updating the petition platform could still be on its to-do list. Shutting it down could be on that to-do list as well. Or the site could keep limping along, collecting signatures for requests that will never be answered. But even under the first option, it’s easy to imagine things going wrong. The current White House may not respond well to a petition asking the president to resign, the way the Obama administration gamely handled a demand to recount the election in 2012. Any answer might be quickly contradicted by another official, or the president himself. And honestly, I’m not sure I want Trump thinking about a Death Star.