604: Petitions

A Thousand Things to Talk About
604: Petitions

Do you sign petitions?

Full episode script

In the essay, “Federalist No. 49,” James Madison wrote:

As the people are the only legitimate fountain of power, and it is from them that the constitutional charter, under which the several branches of government hold their power, is derived, it seems strictly consonant to the republican theory to recur to the same original authority … whenever it may be necessary to enlarge, diminish, or new-model the powers of government.


This idea of petitioning the government wasn’t new when the US government was being created — Article 33 of the Swiss constitution reads in its entirety, quote:

Every person has the right, without prejudice, to petition the authorities. The authorities must acknowledge receipt of such petitions.


In some ways, the whole idea of a petition is the boiled-down essence of direct democracy. If there’s an issue that impacts you, you get enough people to sign on their name and those in authority must look at the issue in at least some way.


There’s all kinds of petition systems and petition standards around the world, and a lot of debate over the threshold of how many signatures it should take for an official response to just about anything. No matter what the threshold is, though, there’s plenty of questions about what those signatures actually mean. And what those signatures count as.


In 2010, the US Supreme Court ruled that signing a petition is not an act that is protected as a secret, First Amendment protected act. Instead, the case of Doe v Reed decided that public disclosure of those that signatures would help maintain the integrity of the petitioning process by helping guard against errors, duplicates, and signatures illegitimately gained.

This script may vary from the actual episode transcript.