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How to Start a Petition

Updated on October 15, 2015

What is a petition?

Before I explain how to start a petition, I want to examine what a petition is, what it is used for, and by what authority we have as citizens to start one.  A petition, in its most common form, is simply a request to an authoritative body to enact a change of some sort.  The authoritative body may be a high school principal, a home owners association, or any public entity or government body.  A petition is usually a document which has been signed by numerous individual and may be presented orally, written, or transmitted via the Internet.

Start a petition
Start a petition

Why start a petition

The Petition

In the United States, we as citizens are given the right to petition as it is granted by the Petition Clause of the First Amendment to the US Constitution which guarantees the right of the people “to petition the Government for redress of grievances.”  In many states, the petition may be used to allow for direct initiatives, also known as ballot initiatives, which is a form of direct democracy.  It allows the registered voters in those states to determine what is best for their communities.  There are also many states that do not allow direct initiatives, which leave only one recourse for the citizenry of those states who have a grievance; file a lawsuit against the government.

Petitions are used as a way to force an authoritative to recognize that there is a want and desire for a certain change.  The size of a petition, determined by the number of qualified signatures, can help influence decisions of those governing bodies in the same way that special interest groups have been influencing legislation with money.

How to Start a Petiton

If you want to start a petition to get something put on the ballot for public vote then the first place you should contact is the governing body you’re going to petition and request any official guidelines that are required.  Most state and local governments have an official guideline for starting and submitting a petition.

Writing the petition is pretty much a standard operation.  Begin with a one paragraph summary of the petition.  First describe the situation, then suggest what change is needed, and follow up with an explanation of why it is needed.  A short summary might read something like the following: “We, the students of City College, petition the college to build a shelter for the designated smoking area adjacent to the cafeteria.   Smokers should not be subjected to adverse weather conditions solely to protect non-smokers from second hand smoke.”

Beneath the summary you will need four columns labeled Name, Address, Phone Number, and Signature.  Then each line under those columns should be numbered to keep a good tally on the desired number of signatures needed.

For political petitions, some states will require that the petition be submitted for review and pay a registration fee before it is circulated for signatures.  This is why you will need to contact the governing body for a complete set of official guidelines.  In most other cases, the petition will be ready for signatures so go find some volunteers and get started.  Make sure that you gather more than the required amount of signatures in case any of the signatures are challenged and removed.

The following states currently have the initiative process: Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, the District of Columbia, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah and Washington.  Unless you live in one of the above states, you’re only recourse for grievance is to file a lawsuit against the governing body following any official appeals. 

When all the signatures are collected, follow the guidelines on submitting the petition.  Attend any public meetings held by the governing body and request that your petition be addressed.  If your petition is accepted and addressed by the governing body then there is a good chance you will see the change that was requested.  If the petition is accepted and then dismissed then you may want to seek legal advice from an attorney.


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