Third Party Petitioning and Mass Movements

Anyone who has been actively involved at a grassroots level in a progressive political campaign has probably done the nitty-gritty work of petitioning to get a candidate, or a party, on the ballot. It’s one of the most basic, practical political experiences an activist can have.

Petitioning gets you out there with large numbers of people, away from the internet, the computer, TV, a desk full of papers or a regular job. To be successful you need to be able to relate to people in a way which leads to some of them taking an action, small though it may be: stopping to sign your petition.

Petitioning can be a good way to get a reading on the thinking of “the masses.” If you’re out on a street corner or in front of a supermarket asking total strangers (mainly) to stop and sign for your candidate, especially if you’re doing it for a progressive third party candidate, the reactions you get will help give you a feel for the relative strength or weakness of your cause.

I’ve just completed a fairly intense period of personal involvement in a Green Party petitioning effort in N.J. I collected over 500 signatures in about 20 hours of on-the-street work. I probably spoke directly with 3-4,000 people, maybe more, to get those signatures. Following this experience, I was asked to write up how I did it. Here’s what I wrote; hopefully, these experiences will be helpful to others.

-First, I go to a location where I know there’ll be a steady stream of people. It doesn’t have to be huge numbers, just a steady stream. I’ve found supermarkets or mini-malls to be good places. At one supermarket I had to sign up in advance to be able to do it. At another one I just went there and was able to petition for an hour and a half before the manager came out and told me I couldn’t do it anymore. At the mini-mall a couple of the store owners made comments to me about not standing right in front of their door, which I complied with, but they made no effort to get me to leave.

I’ve found over the years that if or how much you get hassled depends upon 1) how reasonable and honest you are with the authority figure and 2) what kind of a person the authority figure is. If you get an arrogant guy who clearly wants you off “his” territory, go somewhere else. Of course, if there’s another place where there are lots of people-a city sidewalk, a park, a concert parking lot, etc.-and no potential problems with “private property” issues, that’s great.

-I personalize my outreach. This is key. I identify a person I want to talk to as they’re coming towards me. I generally favor younger people and people of color, but if the traffic is light I will talk to anybody. I have found white men with short hair and American flag t-shirts to be receptive and willing to sign, although in general they’re less likely to.
And with those people, I don’t always use my anti-war line (see below); sometimes I do and it still works out.

-I have some campaign literature safely held in place under the clip of the clipboard, with the top part which says, “Vote Green 2004” easily visible. I have the petition resting on top of that literature, with my finger, or maybe a paperclip, at the page where the last signature was but with the front of the petition visible as the person approaches me and as I talk to them.

-When I talk to the person I look them in the eye and say, “I’m collecting signatures to get the Green Party on the ballot this November. (then, very quickly) The Green Party is against the war, we’re for cleaning up the environment, we’re for universal health care so everyone is covered.” Sometimes I’ll vary it a bit, maybe substituting “we’re for raising the minimum wage to make it a living wage that people can survive on.” If the person has stopped to listen and is clearly interested after one, two or three of these issue positions, I will then flip over to the page where the person can sign and will say, “Can you help us get on the ballot by signing here?” If I get this far, probably 90% of those who are still with me will then sign.

-Sometimes I’ll flip over to the signing page and I can tell they’re still not ready so I’ll say, “Signing doesn’t mean you’re necessarily going to vote for our candidates. This is just to get them on the ballot, so you and others can learn more about what we stand for to help you make your decision about what to do on election day.” This will usually do it.

-If someone has stopped to talk and has an objection, usually that the Green Party will take votes away from Kerry, I point out that Gore in New Jersey won by 16% points and that it’s highly unlikely Bush will win here, also explaining, if necessary, that it’s the results of 50 different state elections to the electoral college and not the popular vote that determines the winner. Sometimes this will work, more often not. If I were in a battleground state, I’d probably say something like, “But don’t you think voters should have the right to make choices?”

-Finally, I’ve learned that you go through cycles. You’ll get a bunch of signatures in a pretty short period of time and then go for a while without getting any. During those down times you have to motivate yourself to come across with the same energy as if you were getting a good response.

At all times you have to come across as genuinely believing in what you are doing and that you are a regular person just like the one you’re approaching, not someone who’s better than them or too intellectual. Think “conversational.”

We will never, ever change this country without many hundreds of thousands of us doing work of this kind, whether petitioning, leafleting, or other work which puts us in direct contact with the working people of this country with an anti-corporate, pro-justice, independent message. This is one reason why third party election campaigns are an important tactic toward building a mass movement capable of fundamental, revolutionary change.

And it is mass movements-not relatively small groups of enlightened and committed organizers-which, in the past, present and future, ultimately change the course of history.