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Learn skills for organizing and implementing a petition drive, in order to influence others to implement, change, or cancel a regulation or action.


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What is a petition drive?

A petition is a collection of signatures from people supporting your issue. The petition is then presented to decision-makers that have the power to create the change you want. A petition drive is the method you use to collect your signatures. This can be a useful tactic to influence others to implement, change or cancel a regulation or action.
Example: Your group might petition the fast food restaurants in your community to post the nutritional content of their menu items in their restaurant, or you might petition the local government to install crosswalks at a particularly dangerous intersection.

What types of petitions are there?

Not all petition drives are the same, however. There are two basic types--governmental, and non-governmental. Here's the difference:
The governmental petition: These are most often petitions to local government, or sometimes to county, state, or federal government levels. Some uses of these are:
  • To put a particular issue on the ballot, such as through a ballot initiative, or through a binding or non-binding referendum.
  • A ballot initiative is used to submit a proposed ordinance, resolution or order to the voters in the community. This does not create the change itself, but puts the change up for voting.
  • A non-binding referendum is used to advise local government on a specific issue or public policy, but does not actually create or change laws.
  • A binding referendum does. It is used to have a legal ordinance, resolution, order, or vote enacted, suspended, or repealed by the elected government or other public agencies, such as school boards.
  • To support the placing of a candidate for office on the ballot
  • To recall a candidate from office
  • To support or oppose proposed legislation or regulations
Governmental petitions have their own rules--municipal, county, state, or federal, as the case may be. Clear procedures for taking out, collecting signatures for, and submitting such petitions are legally in place. In order for the petition to be effective, they must be followed with little leeway. If they are not, your petition could be declared invalid. On the other hand, once these procedures are followed, your petition -- if it has the proper number of signatures -- automatically becomes successful. For example, the initiative or the candidate must legally be placed on the ballot.
The non-governmental petition: These are petitions to non-governmental organizations, such as businesses, industries, or private organizations. They differ from governmental petitions in that:
  • They vary much more in content.
  • There are few or no official rules for how signatures are collected, or for how the petition is submitted.
  • Once the petition is submitted, there is no guarantee that further action will occur.
Non-governmental petitions are meant to show an organization or person the amount of support you have--grassroots or otherwise. The implication is that a lot of people support your cause, and that the recipient of the petition should act on what the petitioners are saying.
Example: A group of consumers didn't like the fact that the local restaurant took low fat items off its menu. Their interest in healthy dietary choices for everyone led them to conduct a petition drive asking the restaurant to restore the healthy choices.

Why should you conduct a petition drive?

The main reasons that you should conduct a petition drive are:
  • To heighten community awareness of your issue
  • To bring visibility and recognition to your group
  • To lead you to new members and future contacts for your group
  • To demonstrate widespread community support for the changes you seek
  • To help bring about the changes you are seeking
Petition drives are a possibility when others hold the decision-making power on an issue you care about, and when you need those others to create the changes you want. By addressing the petition to those decision-makers, you can involve a large number of people relatively easily.
Beyond that, some good indicators for a petition drive are when:
  • There is strong, or at least significant, public support for your issue.
  • You believe that a petition could sway key decision-makers.
  • Petitioning has not been an overused tactic in your particular setting.
  • There are enough people available to collect the necessary signatures in the time you have available.
By itself, a petition drive is not usually a sufficient tactic. However, you may want to start a petition drive when you and your group are conducting other actions and tactics to create the community change you want. For example, combined with a boycott of a particular corporation, a strongly worded petition would convey a powerful message to the leaders of that company. Or, if you were lobbying your local government for a particular law or regulation, a petition with many signers would show community support for that action.

How should you conduct a petition drive?

Conducting a petition drive does not have to be difficult, especially if it doesn't take too many signatures to do the job. But it does involve a little more than just asking people to sign a piece of paper supporting your cause.
First and foremost, you have to decide "What are you trying to accomplish?" Who is the petition aimed at, and what is your group asking for? Be clear about what it is you want done, and who needs to do it.
  • If you and your group want the president of a local paper products company to start using recycled paper in 75% of its products, instead of just 50%, this needs to specifically be stated in your petition.
  • If you and your group want the city to help control the traffic flow through your neighborhood, you might draft a petition for a stop sign to be placed at each intersection, or for the speed limit to be reduced to 20 m.p.h.
Secondly, include the rationale about why you are trying to accomplish this goal. What are the positive economic, social, or environmental impacts of your change? How might these changes benefit the people being petitioned? And what could be the consequences of no action being taken on your issue?
Example: Your group's goals are to reduce the amount of waste sent to the landfill. An increase in usage of recycled products would result in less landfill space being used, as well as fewer natural resources being used to produce completely new products. You should include both of these advantages in your petition.
Once you have answered these questions, the rest of the petition will depend on the type of petition drive you are conducting, and on many of your specific circumstances.

Governmental petitions

Success in conducting a governmental petition drive is to follow the rules set out by the governmental authority. To start with, you will have to know what the rules are before you begin. For example:
  • How many signatures will you need?
  • Must all signatures be on certified petition sheets?
  • How should people's names be signed (printed, by signature, or both?)
  • Should addresses or wards/precincts be included?
  • What other information must be included by the signer, or by the submitter?
  • Are there limitations you must adhere to, or quotas you must meet (for example, signatures per district)?
  • When must the petitions be returned, and to whom?
  • What happens then?
If you are collecting signatures for this type of petition, find out the answers to these questions in advance. The petition drive is important to you and your cause so the last thing you want to happen is for your petition to be disqualified because you have not followed the rules. The more your petition deviates from established opinions, the more important it is to make sure you follow the rules exactly. Your petition could fail to be certified because of a technicality, especially if the petition certifiers don't happen to like what you stand for. It has happened before. Don't let it happen to you.
Therefore, it is important to dot all your i's, cross all your t's, and get advice from local people who have conducted petition drives in your community before. And also:
  • Make sure the petition is clearly worded.
  • Make sure all petition signers are eligible to sign the petition.
  • Make sure each signer signs legibly, with the full information required.
  • Signatures should be legible and identifiable with a specific person (for example, not just "Mrs. Smith," but "Helen J. Smith").
  • Collect more signatures than the minimum required, even up to 50% more. Petition certifiers are likely to check each name and make sure the signer is eligible to sign (e.g., is the signer a registered voter?) They will look for duplicates, and for illegal signatures.
  • Be sure to keep a copy of the petition and its signatures (usually the original petition is the one that is submitted).

Non-governmental petitions

For governmental petitions, you must follow the rules, but for non-governmental petitions, the "rules" are largely up to you. In other words, the circumstances surrounding your petition may be at least as important as the number of signatures on it.
You will need to publicize the petition, and present it to the decision-makers in a way that gets their attention and cooperation. You will gain by taking advantage of other events occurring at the same time. Finally, you are going to want to follow up the petition with other actions. Here are some tips to use in organizing this type of petition drive (some apply to governmental petitions as well):
  • Make sure the target of your petition can take action on the change you want. Do your homework and choose carefully! Petitions take a lot of time and effort. It would be quite disappointing to discover that your petition was ineffective simply because you targeted the wrong organization.
  • The content of the petition should not only express sentiment. You may want to make requests or demands for a particular action to be taken by a specific date.
  • Publicize the petition drive. Use the petition drive as a public relations tool to gain visibility and support for your organization and its cause. By doing this you may give your target time to counter your move, but the target may also recognize the strength of your organization and take action in your favor, or make concessions.
  • Present the petition in a dramatic manner. You could call a press conference, create a news release, or hold a demonstration. Ideally, the petition drive should be presented in person by as many actual signers as possible. The key point is to attract attention to your cause.
  • Engage in advocacy actions in addition to the petition. The petition alone should not be expected to get you everything you want. For example, you may want to combine your petition drive with a letter writing campaign--the petition signers can write individual letters as well. In another example one group that had members write a short, personal, comment about the issue, together with their petition signature.
  • Follow up your demands persistently. If your request or demands have not been met, you may need to take other steps. The recipients of the petition should know you are not just going to go away, but that you will persist until you get what you want. If your petition is not met with satisfactory results, your group may want to consider stronger responses, such as boycotts or other visible public actions.

Getting people to sign the petition

The points above compose an important first step in conducting a petition drive--you definitely need to think about and decide on your petition strategy in advance. Once you and your group have figured out what you need and want from your petition, you can start recruiting people to sign it.
Certainly you want people from your organization to sign your petition--that's easy. But many potential signers are going to be citizens "in general," perhaps people on the street, and many will also be strangers to you. But if your petition is to be successful, they, too, will need to take pen in hand and write down their names. But how do you find these willing strangers? And how do you get them to sign?
Here are some basic steps:
  • Decide how many signatures you want or need.
  • Obtain enough copies of the petition to capture at least that number of signatures. It's a good idea to have more copies than you think you will need. If it's a government petition, make sure all of the copies are legal.
  • Identify your target audience, and think about where it might be found. For instance, are there existing groups already favorable towards your cause? And will they be meeting before your petition deadline? If so, this would be a prime opportunity for signature collection--it's time-efficient, and you are almost ensured a fairly large amount of signatures. The right local conference could also be a good opportunity. As a rule of thumb, however, it's easier to collect signatures indoors than outdoors.
  • Find and recruit enough petition carriers to collect signatures. You can figure out exactly how many you need by estimating a reasonable number of signatures each carrier could probably collect in your given time frame, and divide the total number of signatures needed by that estimate. For example, if you need 500 signatures, you might estimate that one carrier could collect 50 signatures, which would give you a recruitment target to of 10 to shoot for. And a few extra carriers wouldn't hurt either.
  • Train the carriers in both the petition rules and guidelines, and in how to collect signatures. A group meeting would be a good place to initially train, supplemented with specific written instructions.
  • Assign the carriers to locations. Think "indoors" if you can--signatures are usually easier to collect. However, if you will be collecting outdoors, choose settings where crowds are relatively dense and where people will be most likely to give you their attention. Scheduled outdoor events are one possibility, such as picnics, parades, or athletic events. If this is not an option, choose places where people are usually not in a hurry--in front of post offices, libraries, or courthouses, for example. Shopping centers are also possible, if local conditions permit.
  • When approaching potential signers, some common-sense guidelines apply:
  • Be dressed appropriately, though probably not "dressed to kill."
  • Smile. Make eye contact.
  • Be assertive and polite in your approach. Both are equally essential.
  • Explain your general purpose, as well as what the specific petition is intended to do. Plan your opening words carefully, as the first words you speak are probably your most important in convincing someone to sign.

Ask if your target person would be willing to sign the petition. A basic framework might be:

Excuse me, (sir or ma'am), we are collecting signatures to ___________. The petition will be presented (or sent) to ______________, and our goal is to _______________.

Do you think you would be able to sign the petition?

Remember: If it's a governmental petition, you would also need to verify that your target person is eligible to sign.

  • Answer questions, but be brief. It's not a good use of time to get into long conversations--and it's neither efficient nor effective to get into arguments. If someone opposes your petition, and some people will, say "thank you" and move on. In petition drives, rejection comes with the territory. Don't take it personally.
  • For people who are interested in your issue, but unwilling to sign, you might hand them a short piece of literature elaborating on your organization and its intent. You never know--you might catch the very same person the next time around.
Example: A petition drive can be effectively combined with public education. However, if the public is generally uninformed about your issue, you might consider doing public education before actually starting your petition drive.
  • Finally, make sure that the petition carriers know where and when to return the completed petition forms.
There may be other pointers that apply to your particular situation, but these should be enough to get a successful petition drive started.
Remember, the most important thing you need to do is make sure people know what your issue is, what you are trying to accomplish, and that you are conducting a petition drive--make yourselves and what you are doing as visible and specific as possible.

Online Resources

How to Conduct a Petition Drive is a guide for conducting a petition drive, specifically through your church. 

How to Start a Petition has information on the dos and don’ts of petition-writing, as well as how to create a successful petition.

How to Start a Winning Petition is a website provided through the National Association of Realtors.

Online Petition Tools provides a free and easy way to start an online petition.

Print Resources

Altman, D., Balcazar, F., Fawcett, S., Seekins, T., & Young, J. (1994). Public health advocacy: Creating community change to improve health. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford Center for Research in Disease Prevention.

Avner, M., & Smucker, B. (2002). The lobbying and advocacy handbook for nonprofit organizations: Shaping public policy at the state and local level. Amherst H. Wilder Foundation. This book offers a clear step-by-step guide to implementing a successful advocacy program at both the state and local levels.

Bobo, K., Kendall, J., & Max, S. (1996). Organizing for social change: A manual for activists in the 1990s. Cabin John, M.D.: Seven Locks Press.

Center for Community Change (1996). How and why to influence public policy: An action guide for community organizations. Washington, DC.

Fitch, B. (2010). Citizen’s Handbook to Influencing Elected Officials: Citizen Advocacy in State Legislatures and Congress: A Guide for Citizen Lobbyists and Grassroots. The Capitol Net, Inc. This book offers practical guidance for reaching elected officials with a variety of different communication strategies.

Homan, M. (1994). Promoting community change: Making it happen in the real world. Pacific Groove, CA: Brooks/Cole.