I’ve interned in a congressional office and at the MA state house before, and I can tell you from experience: elected representatives don’t care about what people who aren’t their constituents think. When I worked at the state house we were in the middle of a constitutional congress on whether or not the house would pass a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, which had recently been legalized, and we got THOUSANDS of letters a week about it from all over the country. The ones that were from out of our constituency? Ignored. You can’t vote them out, so why would they care?
IF you write directly to your elected representatives, they at least have to respond to you, even with just a form/letter e-mail. They can’t ignore their own constituents. Obviously forming coalitions and scheduling meetings with their staff is best, participating in public forums with the officials is good too, but writing YOUR OWN representatives at least guarantees an intern reads it.
For people like the president, whose constituency is the whole country, think of it this way: a petition gets 200,000 signatures and then… what? Change.org e-mails the White House press office and tells them? Mails them a copy of the petition with all the signatures? How many other similiar petitions do you think arrive on a given day? Why do you think they would pay more attention to that one than the one with 100,000 signatures calling for more wetlands protection, or declaring taxes unconstitutional, or gun control, or abolishing obamacare, or, or, or.
The only way to make the executive branch pay attention is by either getting one of the other branches involved (making Congress pass a law) or making a lot of noise — Obama isn’t giving speeches about the Black Lives Matter protests because of petitions, he’s making speeches because the protests are on the street every night, every week, they’re being covered by the news. Basically, he CAN’T ignore them the same way he ignores the thousands of petitions his staff never even bothers to read, let alone bring to his attention.
In the online age, petitions basically exist to sap activist energy. You sign one, you feel really good about yourself, and you think you’ve done your part. Do you think this administration created the Whitehouse petitions site because they’re so effective? They did it because they knew they could channel energy that could otherwise be used for the kind of political actions that they actually have to respond to in a meaningful way (and because it looks good for them without actually creating work for them.) After all, all a successful We The People petition (which now has an incredibly high threshold for signatures because of signatures from non-US citizens, and because of successful joke petitions like the Death Star one) promises is a “response” from the president, which means in six months you’ll get a form e-mail saying he takes your concerns seriously but he can’t make laws because that’s not how law making in this country works.
The only petitions worth signing, in my opinion, are local petitions that have direct consequences if successful, i.e. “if this petition gets 5000 signatures, this measure or this person will be on the ballot in the upcoming election.” That’s really it. Otherwise, it’s just white noise.