Senator Is First to Push Online Petitions

Posted July 16, 2003 at 4:27pm

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) weaves a political World Wide Web. An online petition against Canadian trash imports on Stabenow’s home page has gathered the e-mails of 80,000 supporters, and the Senator intends to follow up electronically with them.

Web observers say Stabenow’s online petition is a first for a Member of Congress. “It’s really a novel idea that has been to some extent used by nonprofit organizations,” said Brad Fitch, spokesman for the Congressional Online Project.

Stabenow said last week that the online response has been “amazing,” adding, “We were surprised.” About 23,000 people signed on during the first three days alone after the Web site was reported on by Michigan media. Stabenow’s office is collecting the petition forms and will turn them over to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Created in early June after a brainstorming session as a response to a Canadian decision to ship more trash from Toronto across the border into Michigan landfills, the electronic petition is a new way of involving people in the democratic process and a chance “to communicate with people about what’s going on in Washington,” Stabenow said.

Fitch said Stabenow is benefiting from years of Web experimentation. Now, with the lessons learned, it’s up to Members to start taking advantage. Awaiting savvy interactive Members are legions of potential voters who surf the Web. The number of petition signers, for example, exceeds Stabenow’s margin of victory in the 2000 election by almost 13,000.

“We’re not talking about the fringe people anymore, we’re talking about mainstream soccer moms and digital dads who want to be kept informed of what’s going on and want to get involved,” Fitch said.

About 46 million Internet users get political information online, according to the Institute for Politics, Democracy & the Internet at George Washington University. And only 24 percent of Americans have no direct or indirect experience with the Internet, according to a recent Pew Internet & American Life survey.

It ads up to constituent communications becoming a “political opportunity,” Fitch said. “Short of a campaign contribution, an e-mail address is the most valuable thing an online citizen can give a politician. Connecting that e-mail address to a particular issue is gold.”

It’s an opportunity not lost on Stabenow. Her petition signers are “interested in the Canadian trash issue, but also related environmental issues, safety issues. As other bills come up that people will be interested in, we will let them know,” she said.

Fitch said the average Representative does not take advantage of the Web. Congressional rules prohibit House Members from hosting online petitions, but all Representatives can harvest home district e-mails, send electronic newsletters and host interactive Web sites.

“Constituents love online polls. It’s an invitation to say, ‘Tell me what you think,’” Fitch said. Only about a third of Members send out regular e-mail communications to constituents, he said, adding, “Frankly, many of them are very weak political pabulum and not good, interactive, scanable documents.”

By scanable, Fitch meant easy to read. Constituent e-mails need to be short and offer links that connect with Web pages linked to issues, he said. “Sometimes I see a newsletter that’s just longwinded speeches. People don’t read those,” Fitch said.

Member offices also need to know the limits of the Internet, Fitch said. For example, an e-mail campaign can’t artificially whip up public excitement about an issue. A groundswell needs to already exist in order for the Internet to magnify and increase it, he said.

Stabenow said she knew a great “depth of concern” existed in Michigan before she started the petition. The problem, she said, was to “get the attention of the administration or other Members,” and that’s where the Web became useful.

Members should also allow people to opt-out of receiving e-mail, Fitch said, lest the communications become regarded as spam. Bob Meissner, a Stabenow spokesman, said his office would respect the privacy of petition signers and send no unwanted e-mail messages.

Jonas Seiger, a visiting fellow at the Institute for Politics, Democracy & the Internet, said spamming constituents is a bad idea: “For whatever reason, it drives people crazy. It seems to rank higher on the annoying scale than even telemarketing calls at dinnertime.”