Since 2011, Americans have had the opportunity to directly appeal to the White House through its We the People petition site. A new Pew Research Center analysis found that Americans used the site to make a variety of requests, but that the vast majority resulted in no appreciable government action.
The White House pointed to just three petitions that created concrete results. One prompted a new policy to ban the “locking” of smartphone operating systems, a second changed President Barack Obama’s mind on a gay-rights issue and the third led to the honoring of baseball Hall of Famer Yogi Berra, whom Obama gave the Medal of Freedom.
A fourth played a role in brokering a meeting between Obama and first lady Michelle Obama and 106-year-old Virginia McLaurin. The video of their encounter became a viral hit and was viewed more than 67 million times.
The analysis found that the most common petition subjects were the health care system, veterans’ and military issues, disease awareness, immigration, various requests to honor people or investigate criminal cases, along with appeals for animal rights.
Some petitions focused on decidedly offbeat topics. One of the best known was a request for the U.S. to build a Star Wars-inspired Death Star. That petition drew 34,435 signatures. Others urged official recognition of International Talk Like a Pirate Day and an effort to change the national anthem to the My Little Pony theme song called “Friendship is Magic.”
Others were starkly political, including a 2016 petition asking for the arrest of Donald Trump for allegedly inciting violence.
The single-most popular petition – at 367,180 signatures – was a request to recognize the Westboro Baptist Church as a hate group. Other popular petitions were focused on subjects such as a conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan and the investigation of a Buddhist monk in Thailand.
“Petitioners on ‘We the People’ raised a wide variety of issues with the White House as they discussed everything from health care to the military to state anthems,” said senior researcher Paul Hitlin, who wrote the report. “This analysis suggests that many users perceived the site as a way to defend their civil rights and raise issues that were not getting attention elsewhere.”
Increases in the number of signatures required for White House review led to a major decline in the number of petitions meeting that threshold, the review found. The site initially required 5,000 signatures for a formal response, but that number had increased to 100,000 by 2013.
Other top signature-getting petitions included asking Obama to appear on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, a request that netted 314,226 signatures. Deporting Justin Bieber and revoking his green card followed behind with 273,698 signatures. Extraditing Cecil the Lion’s killer, Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer, ranked seventh, with 236,961 signatures. Zimbabwe never filed a formal extradition petition and said the documentation for the hunt was proper.
The Pew Center said it looked at all 4,799 publicly available petitions and 227 White House responses.