Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Point-and-Click Activism

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Do online petition websites like Change.org have any effect on Arizona lawmaking?

An online petition is proposing that Arizona bars be responsible for getting inebriated individuals home safely after underage ASU student Jack Culolias died last December following a night of drinking. It’s just one of the more than 500 new petitions that appear on Change.org, the largest online petition site in the world, every day.

 

These nonbinding, crowd-sourced petitions – which some critics have characterized as spam – are not always effectual, but users embrace them as an exciting leap forward in digital-age democracy. And Arizona lawmakers are taking note. “I get a whole bunch,” State Rep. Katie Hobbs says of Change.org petitions. “In the one I’m getting a lot right now, petitioners are trying to get Governor Brewer to do something with the sentencing of nonviolent drug offenders.”

No topic is off limits when it comes to an online petition – from foreign policy to business boycotts, to requesting air conditioning at an indoor skate park. On We the People, the online petition platform of the White House, a group petitioned the federal government earlier this year to allow states to secede from the federal government; later, petitioners also asked the government to build a Death Star by 2016. That particular petition received more than 34,000 signatures, eliciting a formal denial by the White House.

California-based Change.org doesn’t set limits for the number of signatures required for an issue to reach lawmakers. Petitions can be sent at any time to any relevant lawmaker, organization or group. The petition-starter declares “victory” when they deem the petition has reached a certain level of notoriety or the issue petitioned for has been resolved – as was the case in 2012, when a Washington, D.C. nanny successfully lobbied Bank of America to drop a $5 monthly banking fee.

And no person is barred from starting a petition. Brittany Stone-Prorok of Mesa launched the petition on Change.org for “Jack’s Law” earlier this year, on the heels of Culolias’ death. The 19-year-old student was last seen on November 30 after being kicked out of a Tempe bar. After a two-week-long search, Culolias’ body was pulled from the Salt River. Medical examiners determined he drowned with an alcohol level of .28, more than three-and-a-half times the legal limit.

Stone-Prorok’s petition proposed “any establishment that kicks anyone out for being too intoxicated must either make sure that person has a sober escort or put that person in a cab. If the person refuses, then they call the police.” As of late June, Stone-Prorok’s petition had received 2,171 signatures of support.

“I actually didn’t know Jack or his family at all,” Stone-Prorok says. “I started the petition because everyone was talking about a change needing to happen.” However,  Culolias’ family didn’t want any media attention and weren’t receptive to Stone-Prorok’s efforts. “I never heard back from them,” she says.

The Valley has a somewhat colorful history with Change.org, with petitioners using the site to bring about small victories like adding bike lanes to Downtown Phoenix (see sidebar). Controversially, the site was blocked by Arizona State University in 2012, and labeled as a “spam site,” after an effort led by student Eric Haywood to protest rising tuition costs.

From lawmaker Hobbs’ perspective, those who use the petition site to effect change often have their hearts in the right places, but the high volume and mass-targeted nature of the emails spell doom for most petitions. “I’m not sure why I’m getting [the drug-sentencing petition] because a lot of them aren’t my constituents and I can’t intervene,” she says. “In that regard, it’s not really an effective thing.” Her advice: Call your legislators. “It’d be much more effective if someone from [Jack’s] family came to the legislators and said, ‘Hey, this should be a legal change.’”

Phoetitions
In other words: a smattering of Change.org petitions started by Valley residents.

Save This House: When developers purchased a Phoenix home designed by famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright with the intent to demolish it, the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy amassed 28,645 signatures on a petition to designate the home a historical landmark. In December, the home was sold to a nonprofit organization intent on preserving it.    

Ride On: Greg Esser, former executive director of Roosevelt Row Community Development Corporation, thought bicycle lanes should be added to Roosevelt Street between Fifth and Seventh avenues. His petition to the City of Phoenix garnered 454 signatures, and the city listened – bike lanes were added to the Streetscape project.

Kill Sparky: When ASU introduced a new look for their Sun Devil mascot last March, a group called Change Sparky Back took action. “He looks like a bumble bee and instills laughter instead of fear into opponents,” reads the Change.org petition. More than 2,000 people agreed, and in May, ASU gave Sparky a new, more intimidating makeover.

More Star Trek: Cinnamon Hayes of Mesa petitioned Phoenix Comicon to include more Star Trek. “There are a lot more Trekkers and Trekkies in Arizona that need representation,” reads Hayes’ petition, which racked up just 19 signatures. No word on whether or not Comicon saw the petition.

 

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