Of the four general types of petitions, legal and political petitions must meet specific requirements to be considered valid. Public-purpose and online viral petitions can't be "valid" in the legal sense because they are not legal documents and there are no requirements for them. However, they can be valuable community organizing tools if they're well designed and delivered.
A legal petition asks a court to issue a specific order in a pending case or lawsuit. Attorneys file the petitions according to the court's rules of civil or criminal procedure. The judge's decision whether to grant the petition depends on many factors, including legal precedents, arguments of the opposing party and the facts of the dispute.
A valid political petition follows the rules set by the state or federal government. A political candidate files a nominating petition to indicate that she has enough public support to justify including her name on the ballot. Each signer must sign the form personally, be a U.S. citizen, a registered voter, live in the candidate's election district and include a home address. Petitions to recall elected officials follow similar rules. Ballot initiative petitions include the specific wording of the ballot question and follow the same signing conditions as other political petitions.
The first amendment to the U.S. Constitution ensures our right to "petition the government for a redress of grievances." It does not guarantee that our petitions are always granted. Public-purpose petitions ask officials to take, or not take, a particular action. Organizers can direct petitions to an individual, a government body or an administrative department. They can ask for mundane or sweeping public-policy actions, such as installing a stop sign or establishing a universal health-care system.
Internet Viral Petitions
Viral petitions appear in your email inbox. They are usually vague, altruistic and unfocused, and they often lack a specific purpose or target. Organizers who promote them often don't understand civics or the political process. Viral petitions are more effective in raising public awareness and money for an issue than in changing public policy.
Effectiveness of Viral or Public-Purpose Petitions
There are no legal requirements for public or viral petitions, but the most successful ones follow a traditional format. They include a brief, clear statement of purpose, supporting facts, a request for action and signatures of citizens. Organizers should deliver them to the person, group, or department with the power to make the change that the public wants. Community organizers often arrange media photo opportunities to present thousands of petition signatures to government officials.
While public-purpose petitions are not as effective as personal meetings or individual letters, legislators know that those signatures represent people who care about that issue, probably enough to affect their votes.