Judging by the most popular petitions filed with the White House, here are Americans’ top demands of President Obama:

Legally recognize Westboro Baptist Church as a hate group.

File charges against the 47 Republican senators who wrote a letter to Iran to undermine the nuclear deal.

Deport Justin Bieber and revoke his green card.

Extradite Twin Cities dentist Walter Palmer to Zimbabwe for killing Cecil the Lion.

These demands are among the six that received more than 200,000 electronic signatures on the White House We the People petition website, an experiment in direct democracy now in its fifth year. Anybody can start a petition, but it has to gain 150 signatures before it becomes public on the website, and then reach a threshold of signatures (currently 100,000) within 30 days to elicit a response from the administration.

Only 275 have earned a response, out of more than 411,000 petitions filed since 2011. The Obama administration credits We the People petitions for leading to policy changes on such issues as unlocking cellphones and cracking down on puppy mills. But they haven’t unleashed a flood of executive orders or dramatic reforms. Immigration has no plans to send Justin Bieber back to Canada, despite the 273,968 signers who call him a “terrible influence” on young people.

J.H. Snider, a public policy researcher who has studied We the People, called the petition site “a gem in the rough” that has so far fallen short of its promise.

“In theory, it’s supposed to help the disenfranchised, the people that don’t have other vehicles for getting the attention of Washington insiders,” said Snider, president of a Washington think tank called iSolon.org. “In practice, you have to be incredibly well organized before you begin the process.”

The right to petition the government for a redress of grievances is guaranteed in the First Amendment, alongside the rights to free speech, press, religion and peaceable assembly. Petitions were a powerful element of early democracy in Europe and the United States, where they were regular fodder for discussion and policy in Congress through the mid-19th century, Snider said.

“It’s unimaginable today that that would happen,” he said.

Still, there’s plenty of enthusiasm for petitioning the White House. The Data Analysis and Social Inquiry Lab at Grinnell College in Iowa created an online tool that makes it easy to page through 4,200 petitions that have at least 150 signatures.

They make up one of the strangest collections of political beefs. Douglas R. Hess, assistant professor of political science at Grinnell, compared it to “opening up the anger of the comments section of the newspaper to the White House.”

Some of them ask the president to violate the Constitution, or exercise other powers that he doesn’t possess. Other six-figure-signature petitions call for granting permanent immigration status to a German family that home-schools, urging a recount in the Venezuelan election and making the opening day of Major League Baseball a national holiday. Following Obama’s re-election in 2012, 50 petitions arrived representing a request from each state to peaceably secede from the Union. “J.S.” from St. Paul (names aren’t listed) was the first signer to ask that Minnesota become its own country. The bid attracted 5,840 signatures.

“Asking the White House to get rid of a statue in a public park in California is ridiculous,” Hess said. Yet 129,649 people petitioned the president to remove the “comfort women” statue in Glendale, Calif., a memorial to Korean victims of World War II that is offensive to some Japanese people.

While the White House response to that petition was terse (not our department), Hess said, other petitions have merited a longer answer. The request by 236,961 people to extradite Palmer was a moot point, because he faces no charges in his ill-fated trophy hunt. But the administration answered the petition by calling attention to its efforts to combat illegal wildlife tracking and use the Endangered Species Act to protect African lions.

The administration used the Bieber petition to argue a serious policy point: “… We’re glad you care about immigration issues. Because our current system is broken.”

Some have complained that popular petitions have languished, and the Obama administration pledged late last month to respond within 60 days. Hess said his conclusion, after studying the petitions, is that serious activists should direct their efforts elsewhere: “If you want to have an impact in government, this is probably one of the lower things I would put on your list of priorities.”

In fact, one petition filed in 2013 called for shutting down We the People, calling it an “annoying and utterly useless website.” It attracted 1,134 signatures and therefore, merited no response.


Contact James Eli Shiffer at james.shiffer@startribune.com or 612-673-4116.