THE BUZZ 2: Petition Prowess

By on December 20, 2016

Can Jackson’s record of grassroots online change-making carry over into larger political realms?

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JACKSON HOLE, WY – Jackson residents are accustomed to their opinions carrying weight, on the internet and on the street. Especially when it comes to online petitions and fundraising, Jacksonites are known to unite for community causes.

In 2014, Madeleine Mundt led a campaign on Change.org to restructure Jackson’s post office procedures so that packages without a street address didn’t immediately get returned. Five hundred people signed the petition and the campaign resulted in the town council asking postmaster Jennifer Grutzmacher how services could be improved. Grutzmacher promised to refer the matter to her bosses. Mundt reported on Change.org on February 11, “The Post Office agreed to institute changes to their back of house operations in an effort to reduce auto-returns.”

Just this past fall, Save Historic Jackson Hole conducted a door-to-door petition that resulted in a special referendum vote allowing Jackson residents to decide short-term rental incentives available to developers in District 2. In July 2015, the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance used Facebook to rally dozens of people to attend a town council meeting focused on downtown commercial zoning. The effort raised awareness about the housing crisis and helped spark ongoing public engagement.

“Facebook leverages and compliments existing relationships and helps get the word out quickly to people who already care passionately about an issue,” Alliance executive director Craig Benjamin told PJH. “It’s a helpful tool to connect with folks and provide them with opportunities to speak up for their values.”

In June 2016, Shelter JH organized on Facebook and led a housing rally that brought 100 people to town hall. People personally affected by the housing crisis told their stories before and during a town council meeting, forcing elected officials to confront how the housing crisis is affecting locals.

Social media aside, on the fundraising front, in 2016, Old Bill’s Fun Run raised $12,150,629 for area nonprofits; 3,774 people donated. Perhaps most noteworthy about this effort is that it hinged on collective generosity—52 percent of the gifts were less than $250.

Beyond the Jackson hood

In the wake of the presidential election, some Jackson residents have been taking to social media to share petitions, actions and donation drives aimed at protecting democracy. But which online efforts are most effective? Artist Rosanna DeSario Mitchell is signing every petition she can. “Every day there is something new to sign,” she said.

Mitchell says she is motivated out of concern about the future of the US under a Donald Trump presidency. “A dictator … is about to run our country and I am quite terrified he will destroy it.”

Jewelry-maker Nancy Carson says that online activism is part of her wheelhouse of resistance, which she too is now focusing on the president-elect. “I expect him to declare martial law as soon as he has the least excuse.”

Regardless of anyone’s political leanings, the question is what role does online activism play in creating change on a national level?

Some petitions appear to simply serve the purpose of making the signatories feel engaged, like the #StopTrump and #DefendDemocracy petition on ActionNetwork.org. Signed by writers and leftist luminaries like Rebecca Solnit, Barry Lopez, and Eve Ensler, the petition asks signers to “commit to daily actions to focus on the most strategic leverage points, to build and strategize to maximize our power, to seize the opportunities that arise as the situation changes, and to be what the moment demands,” or in other words, be at the ready. But for what exactly?

However, other efforts point to tangible, targeted results. For instance, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi reportedly sought citizen support for her call for a bipartisan Congressional review of Russia’s interference in the U.S. presidential election. The one-day action asked citizens to send a letter of support to Pelosi via her online contact form.

The suggested text for a message to Pelosi read: “I am writing to you as an American citizen who is deeply concerned that our ‘President Elect’ has numerous unresolved conflicts of interest … Our electors need time to review all relevant evidence and think deeply about their votes before the Electoral College is scheduled to meet on 12/19. Therefore, I cannot urge you strongly enough to personally contact President Obama to request a temporary stay of the electoral vote.”

Efforts like Pelosi’s failed, however. On Monday, the electors voted solidly for Trump, with more electors “defecting” from Clinton than the president-elect.

While online petitions and form letters hold the appeal of making people feel like at least they are doing something, the logic of “it can’t hurt” is not always accurate, according to writer Emily Ellsworth. A former congressional staffer, Ellsworth is the author of Call the Halls: Contacting Your Representatives the Smart Way.

“The most important part of action is deliberation and thoughtfulness. When you engage with your elected official, you want to sound as credible and knowledgeable as possible,” Ellsworth wrote in a newsletter. “It’s human nature that you want to engage with someone who knows what they want and has a grasp on the situation—congressional staffers are no different.”

A new website, DailyAction.org, purports to make instant experts of everyone, and make it easy to call legislators on important issues. People sign up via their phones by texting “DAILY” to the number “228466.” Following a prompt to enter your zip code, you are signed up to receive once-daily action alerts. The alerts include a phone number to call and listen to a recording about the day’s issue. Callers are then routed directly to their elected official.

The power of thousands of voices cannot be ignored, Ellsworth told The New York Times recently. “It brings a legislative issue right to the top of the mind of a member,” she said. “It makes it impossible to ignore for the whole staff. You don’t get a whole lot else done.”

Emails, however, do not carry the same weight. They are easy to skim or batch together in themed groups, whereas personal voices and personal stories are more effective with the staffers who typically answer phones for legislators, Ellsworth noted.

That said, those hoping to shift the behavior of Wyoming’s die-hard conservative senators and representatives may not have it so easy.

Carson makes the calls in spite of her doubts about influencing her legislators.

“When I have phoned my U.S. representatives their staffers have treated me respectfully, but I have little hope Barrasso, Cheney and Enzi will see or care about my point of view,” she said.

But she’s going to keep calling and writing anyway. “I am motivated by my love of the natural world, mostly, and my desire for my grandchildren to inherit clean air, water, and a USA that welcomes diversity and deals with the many problems we face sensibly and scientifically.”

Mitchell says she calls her legislators whenever possible. Both she and Carson also talked about contributing to progressive causes and organizations like Planned Parenthood. “I hope that people stay active and don’t fall into another trance, thinking everything will be fine,” Mitchell said. “It won’t.” PJH

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About Meg Daly

Meg Daly is a freelance writer and arts instigator. She grew up in Jackson in the 1970s and 80s, when there were fewer fences, but less culture. Follow Meg on Twitter @MegDaly1

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