Elizabeth May was excluded from the debates during the last federal election. In response, the Green Party launched a website and petition to highlight that this decision silenced her voice during an important opportunity for the party and its leader to be part of the national discourse and considered opinion of all voters. The petition made national headlines when it appeared the GPC had scored more than 90,000 signatures in the few short hours since the petition’s launch. Like many people, I was impressed by the level of interest, response and engagement.

I was in a partnership with The Canadian Press to provide analysis of the digital components for the election. So, the day after the petition was launched, I spoke with Camille Labchuk, Federal Councillor of the GPC. During our phone conversation, Ms. Labchuk informed me that the petition was started in 2007 before the previous federal election, parked, then re-opened in response to the latest decision regarding the debate. When it was relaunched, the petition already had 80,000 signatures.

Don’t get me wrong, nearly 20,000 in six hours is nothing to shake a stick at. However, it’s a very different story than the one the media was led to believe and reported on (approaching 100,000 signatures in six hours). And, it’s a story the Green Party apparently didn’t go out of it’s way to correct.

Ever since, I’ve been very curious about the role of electronic petitions in generating earned media, shaping public opinion and possibly impacting public policy.

Petitions are important to democracy

To be clear, I believe in petitions (and e-petitions) as effective tools to help generate awareness and conversation, and bring about meaningful change. That’s probably why I’ve become so critical of their misuse. In my view, the misuse/abuse of petitions is bad for democracy.

Petitions have worked for eons on local issues because someone standing on a street corner with a clipboard will usually engage with people to discuss the issue and the solutions as part of the process of collecting signatures. Then, the signature is hand written and accompanied by an address, probably a postal code, and sometimes even a phone number or email address. All of that is critical because it makes the signature verifiable and necessary for a petition to be entered into the public record. If nothing else, it makes the petition look legitimate (even if it isn’t).

There’s another reason this information is important.

A local issue needs local interest

While a politician might be embarrassed if someone from another country signs a petition opposing their idea, it’s not likely to influence their position. Someone who might vote for them, on the other hand, has a great deal of influence. This means, there’s a direct correlation between the quantity and quality of signatures.

Some people are beginning to recognize the challenges facing online petitions. They’ve figured out that touting the number of signatures on a petition is analogous to celebrating the number of people who like a Facebook post or issue a retweet — whether of not they were told (or shamed) to do so. They realize people will question the relevance of the signatures.

Research I did on a 2010 petition calling on Ottawa Police Chief Vern White to fire cell block officers revealed that fewer than 20% of the signatures were from citizens of Ottawa. In fact, well over 40% were from out of the country. Last summer, the organizers of a petition against a commercial development near Kensington Market in Toronto had to admit that a healthy percentage of the nearly 90,000 signatures they were trumpeting were from out of the city.

MANY online petitions are veiled in secrecy. The number of signatures is seen as the one and only metric that matters. There is rarely proactive transparency of signatures or even an interface that indicates the distribution of regional support of the petition.

Fair Elections Act petition raises flags

CJAD was the first media outlet to publish an April 23 Canadian Press story titled Online petition on Fair Elections Act gets almost 50,000 signatures in 24 hours to the Internet. This petition is one of 17 pushing for changes to, or the scrapping of, the Fair Elections Act (see number 17 on the numbered list below).

There are many things about this petition which raise flags about its credibility. I’m not suggesting the petition isn’t credible. I’m saying the creators of this petition have made it very easy to question the credibility of the petition — and the signatures on it.

Proactive transparency improves credibility

Unlike the other 16 petitions, there is no indication of who created or sponsored the petition. Two other petitions hosted on the site, avaaz.og, disclose the names of the creators and the four most recent signatures and where they’re from (numbers 10 and 12 below). The contentious petition doesn’t.

The change.org petition created by Janelle Martel (number 7 below) is the only petition which lists ALL signatures and their regional origins. This is very unusual among e-petitions, including those on change.org.

Questions come to mind including how many people signed multiple Fair Elections Act petitions? How many signed all of them? That’s the danger of multiple petitions on the same subject about which many people are so passionate.

Lightning in a bottle? Or a manufactured petition?

I did a quick analysis (using Sysomos Heartbeat) of how many times people promoted Fair Elections Act petitions online.

Between February 1 and April 20, there were 2,704 online mentions of the petitions. From the time of its first online mention (a tweet issued by @perryjerome) to 24 hours later, the suspect petition was able to amass nearly 50,000 signatures on just 322 online mentions (including eight confirmed from out of the country and at least half of unknown nationality).

It’s very possible this petition managed to catch lightning in a bottle. It’s happened before and will happen again. However, the secrecy surrounding the creator of the petition and its sudden rise to prominence — surpassing petitions by LeadNow, the Council of Canadians, the NDP, Democracy Watch, the Liberals and the Green parties — has me wondering if the signatures are earned or paid. And, if they’re strictly Canadian. A request to avaaz.org for more information has gone unanswered.

The move to legitimizing the electronic petition

Some governments are building systems and processes to make the process legitimate. They recognize that online petitions are becoming increasingly popular and will play a greater role in engaging people in the democratic process.

17 petitions opposing the Fair Elections Act

The following list identifies 17 petitions opposing the Fair Elections Act, who created the petition and includes signature count recorded at 7amET, April 26, 2014.

  1. Stop US-style voter suppression from becoming Canadian law by LeadNow (57,765)
  2. Stop the Conservatives’ new elections law from stacking the deck in the 2015 election email campaign by LeadNow (10,607)
  3. Petition: Demand truly fair elections by the Council of Canadians (undisclosed)
  4. Stand up for Canadian democracy by the NDP (14,648)
  5. Save your vote by the NDP (undisclosed)
  6. Let people vote by the Canadian Federation of Students (undisclosed)
  7. Tell Canadian Government Not to Pass New “Fair Elections Act” Bill by Janelle Martel (6,182; includes list of signatures and their sources, almost all are Canadian)
  8. Make the Fair Elections Act Actually Fair by Democracy Watch (2,784)
  9. Make the Fair Elections Act actually fair email campaign by Democracy Watch (52,919)
  10. Conservative Party of Canada, Members of Parliament: Scrap the Fair Elections Act by “Michael” (938; four recent signers disclosed, all Canadian)
  11. Petition against the proposed Fair Elections Act by Joyce Murray (undisclosed)
  12. Justin Trudeau, Tom Mulcair, Elizabeth May: Denounce Harper’s reign as illegitimate and illegal by Matthew T. (2,220; four recent signers disclosed, three are Canadian and one from the UK)
  13. Stand with Justin: Join the call for a free vote on the Unfair Elections Act by the Liberal Party (19,590)
  14. Defend our Democracy — Add Your Name by the Green Party (undisclosed)
  15. A Petition to the Federal Government to amend the Fair Elections Act by teachers Ron Martinello and Anton Milardovic (undisclosed)
  16. Opposition MPs should unite and walk out of the House one day a week until this bill is withdrawn by Tom W. (24; four recent signers disclosed, all Canadian)
  17. The fight for Canadian democracy by unknown (60,581)