News Column

Citizen Petitions for Secession Posted on White House Website

Nov 14 2012 10:00PM

Tracie Mauriello

What would Old Glory look like with a few less stars?

More than 750,000 angry voters looking to have their states secede from the union want to find out.

Residents representing every state but Vermont have signed online petitions since President Barack Obama's re-election last week, and they're using the administration's own website to do it.

Of course, secession requires a lot more than a bunch of signatures, but the petitions are helping to unify voices and give strength to political messages.

"If you're hoping your state is going to actually secede you're probably wasting your time, but if you want public officials to know you're unhappy about something then I don't think signing petitions is a waste of time at all," said Jim Gomes, director of the Mosakowski Institute for Public Enterprise at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.

About 17,600 people -- including many from outside Pennsylvania -- electronically signed two petitions seeking independence for the Keystone State.

The White House created the "We the People" website last fall so citizens could encourage government action on national issues. Officials promised to respond to all petitions with more than 25,000 signatures.

So far, at least six states have accumulated that many signatures on a single petition to secede. Texas has most signatures seeking secession: nearly 100,000 as of Wednesday evening.

Several competing petitions urge the president to revoke citizenship from people who have signed secession petitions, to deport them or to require them to pay their share of the national debt before seceding.

Although many of the petition signers are reacting emotionally and rhetorically to election results they didn't like, students in Lou Manza's Advanced Research Design class at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa., on Wednesday were concerned about news coverage of the separatist petitions.

"They were nervous, like it was really going to happen," Mr. Manza said in an interview Wednesday evening. "I told them, no. Just because a bunch of people signed a petition, a state is not going to secede. That's crazy. It's not how it works."

It's unlikely that secession was one of those "important issues" the White House contemplated when it created the site. Neither was requiring the president to do the hokeypokey, to endorse Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel for the Heisman Trophy or to have a beer with the founder of Fark.com, a website that aggregates weird and humorous news.

Most petitions address weightier issues such as immigration policy, accessibility of public records, humane treatment of animals, food safety and space exploration.

Dozens of responses have been issued since the website launched late last year. Several are explanations of reasons the administration cannot respond directly to petitioners' concerns.

The most recent successful petition dealt with the most lighthearted of matters: the recipe for White House beer. Although only 12,400 signed that petition, less than half the number required for a response, White House assistant chef Sam Kass happily provided the recipe in a response replete with beer puns.

In earlier, weightier matters, the administration told petitioners the Army would no longer use monkeys to train soldiers in life-saving techniques. Petitioners who advocated for green cards for foreign students with advanced degrees were invited to participate in a conference call on immigration.

Signed by 37,167 last year, one of the earliest petitions on the site urges the White House to "actually take these petitions seriously instead of just pretending you are listening."

Macon Phillips, director of the office of digital strategy, handled that response, saying that the administration reviews every petition that reaches the signature threshold.

"In many cases, petitions posted on 'We the People' have helped spur discussions of important policy issues here at the White House and across the administration, and we've used the 'We the People' platform to announce changes in policy or continue a dialogue with people who have an interest in the issue," Mr. Phillips wrote.

For example, he wrote, U.S. archivist David Ferriero held a conference call last year with petitioners asking for better access to government records. He used their comments to prioritize which records to digitize first, Mr. Phillips wrote.

"The bottom line is that launching 'We the People' is another step we've taken to harness the power of the Internet to include more Americans in the work of the White House," he wrote.

In reality, petitions aren't as effective as signers think, Lebanon Valley's Mr. Manza said.

"The White House is just going to take these signatures and say, 'Look, all these people say X,' and then they say, 'Thank you. We'll take that under advisement,' " Mr. Manza said.

A lot of signers expect something more, he said.

"They think if they get a lot of signatures then it will change something," he said.

Mr. Gomes of Clark University said government said the online petitions are just one more way for government officials to hear from constituents. Online petitions, which require little more than a mouse click, are less effective than protests, phone calls and letters that require more effort, but they're still important, he said.

"If you just click a button that says 'I'm for this' or 'I'm against this,' it doesn't indicate how important it is," Mr. Gomes said.

Still, it's a way for the White House to track what Americans want, he said.

"If you're in government, you need to pay attention to popular sentiment. If you don't, after a while you do get thrown out," Mr. Gomes said. "You can't do what everybody's asking you to do because you've got people coming at you from all sides, but anybody who has ever served on a town council or state legislature knows that you do have to pay attention to those letters from your constituents and to the people who come up to you in the coffee shop to give you a piece of their mind."

To view, sign or create petitions go to www.whitehouse.gov/petitions.



Source: (c)2012 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Distributed by MCT Information Services


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