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What is a Petition?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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A petition is a formal written document which is submitted to an authority in an attempt to get that authority to accede to a request. Typically, it is signed by multiple people, indicating that a large group of people supports the request detailed in the document. In some countries, the right to petition members of government is protected by law; many of these countries have legal systems based on the English legal system, which has had this right dating back to the Magna Carta.

Politically, a petition can be used to get an initiative on the ballot in some countries, assuming that enough people sign the ballot. In the United States, voter originated initiatives are common on many ballots, and they cover a diverse array of issues which the authors feel are not being addressed by figures in government. Petitions can also be used in an attempt to repeal laws or to recall elected officials. In other cases, they may be used for community appeals; a group of people who wants an off-leash dog park, for example, might create a petition to bring to a city council meeting for the members to consider.

In regions of the world that support the right to petition, generally a minimum number of signatures is required before the document will be accepted. This minimum amount varies widely, and a time limit may be imposed as well to ensure that proceedings do not drag on. For example, someone who wants to get an initiative on a particular ballot would need to file the paperwork with government officials and then collect valid signatures on the petition and submit them within a set period.

For such a petition to stand up legally, the text of the proposed initiative must conform with prevailing laws. Many activists get lawyers and experienced legal authorities to draft the text to ensure that the initiative would be both legal and effective if passed. Petitioning is a common activity on many college campuses and in crowded urban areas since petitioners know that they can collect a large number of signatures from a crowd.

The term is also used more informally to refer to a simple request from anybody, not just a member of government. Some people talk about petitioning a deity when they pray, for example, or a young child might petition a parent for an allowance increase. In these instances, it is not a formally drawn document, making the request oral rather than written.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon154520 — On Feb 21, 2011

Anon97190: I am receiving the same kind of harassment on the part of a Census worker. I almost broke down and called him today to respond, but then read the posts on this site and decided not to. He called seven times and left voice mail messages (I have not returned them) and came by at the same time on different days and sat in his car in my driveway for a while and watched my house. He left a note once telling me I was "required" to speak with him. He also went to a neighbor's house to ask if I lived here. In addition I received a letter from the Census's "Regional Director" telling me I was "required" to complete the ACS.

At this point I'm unsure what to do. Frankly, I feel like I have a stalker! What's curious to me is how this guy got my name and phone number because I filled out the initial survey in the summer with only the number of people in my home. I live in a small town and I think he got my information from someone at the town office, but I can't prove it. I have to admit, this is really getting on my nerves and I hate hiding, but I guess unless I receive a notice about a fine, I'll continue to do what I'm doing.

By anon97190 — On Jul 18, 2010

We are being faced with a bigger problem and it doesn't seem to stop or get better. This census we had to fill out and submit back to the bureau was sent as a count of heads in the home.

But now it has gotten to the point that we are getting harassment phone calls and visits at anytime during the days. They also gossip with the neighbors and I am outraged.

We have no legal recourse but to subject ourselves to these threats and constant harassment by these individuals. I am tired of it and I need to know what can be done to stop this.

I am not the only one this is happening to. If you look at the web its all over the place, and it doesn't seem like the government cares very much.

I am only one individual who is tired of this and wants it to just stop. What ever happened to the 5th amendment of the constitution? Have we become such a communist country that we no longer have rights, and our votes do not count or matter?

My emails go unseen or heard, so I am not sure how much more to address this issue. I am not the only voice who wants this to stop. Who gives any government official the right to threaten or speak to us as if we were pieces of crap?

Please Sen. Menendez, I am begging you to please put a stop to this. We have repeatedly submitted the information, head counts have been given.

We need some help here, where the government claims they will assist financially, it looks as if this is turning into more than that.

By anon87829 — On Jun 01, 2010

i have a conviction as defined as a class b misdemeanor dated back to 2001.

i have done my community supervision in county jail for 180 days and my adjudication was discharged since august of 2001. Ever since then, I've had a hard time getting a job due to my background.

My question for you is on my case what is the best solution for me to have my background be off my shoulder or haunting my life regardless of my employment? Please give me your best helpful advice. thanks very much. sincerely yours.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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