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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.