During a recent Wright County Board meeting, Commissioner Mike Potter addressed a question I have often asked “What is the real value of petitions?”
Petitions are an integral part of our system, and are often used to influence public bodies to take (or not take) a particular action.
The general idea is that having a group of people sign a petition lends a degree of weight or credibility to a request.
Perhaps this eliminates the need to address concerns that one person may have, but which don’t affect a large number of people.
Critics of petitions note that their value is based on the assumption that the people who sign a petition believe in whatever issue the petition addresses.
The question is do they?
No doubt some people who sign petitions actually do support the position
There are, however, likely others who sign any petition a friend or acquaintance asks them to sign. They may not know or care what the petition is about.
Public policy should not be a popularity contest. A person with many friends should not have more influence than someone with fewer friends.
We should also take human nature into account. If a persistent, overbearing person asks someone to sign a petition, they may sign it just to get rid of the person or avoid conflict.
Another question is, should elected officials consider the opinions of people outside their jurisdiction, and who should decide which signatures matter?
In the Wright County example, Potter noted that 43 out of the required 100 signatures were from people outside the area.
Potter indicated he is concerned about the opinions of his constituents, but is less swayed by the opinions of people who live in towns far removed from the project site addressed by the petition.
On the other hand, Commissioner Darek Vetsch noted that environmental issues travel, and contamination in one place may affect people in other areas, so those people should have a right to voice their concerns, as well.
It is not uncommon to see a request to sign a petition online. It doesn’t take much thought or commitment to sign such a petition, and it would be difficult to tell how connected online signers are to the issue.
Keep in mind, pictures of cute animals can go viral online, so the fact that an online petition has a lot of signatures may not mean much.
Petitions, whether signed online or in person, may have value, and might lend credibility to a cause or request, but we should remember their weaknesses and consider petitions what they are a tool to be used in making decisions.