By now, the petitions.whitehouse.gov site has become a pretty familiar resource for involved citizens and activists on both sides of the aisle to voice their concerns and offer their recommendation to the President and his administration.
Most recently, the site has been in the news for a petition launched encouraging President Trump to make good on his campaign promise to release his tax returns.
The construct is simple — users register an account, create a petition about an issue that concerns them, and then are given 30 days to solicit 100,000 signatures in order to receive an official response from the White House. Users receive an email “starter packet” of sorts with tips for promotion, and pre-scripted language and web links for sharing on their social media channels.
It’s not hard to imagine, with the divisiveness our country has been experiencing the past few weeks, that this site is likely experiencing much more traffic than usual. Whether objecting to our new President’s executive order to revive the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines, or showing support for his idea to build a Mexico-funded wall on our southern border, the American public has a lot to say (read: shout) to our new Commander in Chief.
It’s shame that, at the moment — they’re not able to.
In less than a week’s time since the aforementioned tax return petition hit its goal (exceeding it by 240,000+ signatures), petitions.
I spend my nine-to-five at a digitally-native advertising agency that routinely builds websites with similar functionality for our clients. That’s one of the reasons why I was so perplexed by the site’s behavior when yesterday I tried to create a petition of my own.
I won’t bother you with the topic submitted — it’s inconsequential — but I hope after reading the play-by-play of my experience that you’ll too want answers as to why this important forum for public discourse is broken, with no stated plans to fix it in sight.
On Tuesday morning, January 24th, I submitted my entry. I went through the process being very respectful in how I crafted my language, and I followed all of the site’s rules, regulations and tips for developing a successful petition.
Upon completion, I got a nearly immediate auto-response email from “We the People: Your Voice in Our Government” (firstname.lastname@example.org) telling me that my submission had successfully been posted. It read:
Thank you for creating a petition on We the People!
You now have 30 days to get 99,999 signatures in order for your petition to be reviewed by the White House. Until your petition has 150 signatures, it will only be available from the following URL and will not be publicly viewable on the Open Petitions section of We the People:
Here are a few tips to help you promote your petition and get to 99,999 signatures:
1. Email: Email your petition to your friends, family and others who care about this issue. Below is a sample email you can forward to your friends right now.
2. Facebook: Post your petition to your Facebook wall to let folks know about it. Here’s a sample message you can cut and paste into your Facebook status:
I just started a petition on the White House petitions site, We the People. Will you sign it? https://wh.gov/iu3AP
3. Twitter: Tweet about your petition. Here’s a sample tweet you can use:
I just started a petition on the White House Petitions site, We the People. Will you sign it? https://wh.gov/iu3AP
Curiously though, the URL they sent me returned a 404 error (a “Page Not Found” message). Thinking perhaps the email system was a bit ahead of the automated short-link
This is where things start to really get weird. Link shorteners, by design, should never duplicate a URL string they’ve already generated, as they’d override the site that was originally assigned that short link. It’s the equivalent of the city giving your home an address, but then deciding after you’ve been living there awhile to give the same address to someone else across town.
Later in the day, I tried again — same issue, although this time I was sent a different, yet still invalid, short link.
At this point, I could feel the pinch of a tin foil hat on my head; I was starting to feel a little Winston Smithy about the whole thing. So I called a few of the technologists that work with me into my office and walked them through the process. They too were puzzled, eventually confirming it looked like the link shortener was malfunctioning, and provided me a workaround to actually get to my petition — workaround that even I, as a pretty savvy site user, would have likely had little idea to uncover had it not been for their help.
Once there, I discovered my petitions had successfully been created, and that all five were present (with no clear user interface option in which to delete them). This is of course problematic as it could potentially split the signatures over the multiple instances of the petition, and make it more difficult to reach the 100,000 signatures to garner a response from the White House.
I started scouring the internet for other instances of similar issues, and found that plenty of people were experiencing the exact same problems. Some were even reporting that once their petitions were posted, their vote tallies weren’t being counted. Many not even moving past the “1 of 100,000” metric despite knowing their network of friends had in fact signed it.
One such instance was the “Preserve the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities” petition, which, as the The Independent’s Christopher Hooton reported, “has received hundreds of tweets from proud signees but the official count (at the time of writing) reads: ’27 signed’.” Facebook threads on the matter even pointed to those opposing the petition’s message gaining ammunition to mockingly commenting on the lack of enthusiasm for the effort.
And with no official statement from the White House (quite the opposite as it’s still as of 5:15 Wednesday, sending “Success” emails), those anxious to dialogue with their newly elected leader are unfortunately out of luck.
So in the spirit of bug squashing, I’ll reiterate the site’s issues for those keeping score at home:
- The site is generating INVALID sharable shortlinks upon submission for petition creators to share their petitions
- The automated email system sends the user a “success” message confirming their petition was posted, but also including FOUR invalid instances of the same short link that returns a bad landing page for anyone trying to access them
- The system is also sporadically sending the SAME short link in emails to users for DIFFERENT petitions
- This is causing some users to think their petition was not properly submitted, and they’re repeatedly trying to re-create them; which is then potentially SPLITTING SIGNATURES across multiple petitions for the same issue by the same author
- The effected live petitions can only be found in a roundabout manner that most users would not know how to discover, that doesn’t utilize the provided short link
- The site is also not properly tallying signatures for some petitions, with many not registering signatures AT ALL
- These two issues, the short link issue and the tallying of submissions not being counted, are, from a coding sense, not related — meaning if it were a “glitch” in the site’s design, it’d be highly unlikely both of these would be malfunctioning without someone purposely changing their expected function.
If none of this concerns you, or if it’s too “inside baseball” for you to follow, I implore you, give this article another read, or try to create a petition yourself.
Bottom line: whether you love him or loathe him, President Trump was elected because he found a way to connect with the people…
The people deserve the chance to connect with him.