The right to petition the government to complain about something or to demand action on an issue is as old as our country itself--it’s enshrined in the First Amendment, along with rights to freedom of religion, freedom of speech and the press, and freedom to assemble. It’s a fundamental part of our political system.

We’re all familiar with petitions: someone corners you at the mall, armed with a clipboard and a stack of papers, asking for a signature. You sign, or not, and usually never find out the final outcome of the petition campaign.

That was old school.

The new way to petition the federal government, like most everything else these days, is online. "We the People," at www.WhiteHouse.gov, allows citizens (at least those citizens over the age of 12 years) to create petitions on any issue imaginable and then seek electronic signatures from everyone else. The web site provides a forum, but it’s up to the person who created the petition to publicize the effort.

Petitions that garner 150 signatures within 30 days will be listed on the website in a searchable database. If the petition garners enough public support during a set period of time--currently 25,000 signatures within 30 days, although that can change from time to time--someone at the White House will review it and issue an official response. Petitions that meet the second threshold also will be sent to the appropriate government agency for consideration. Petitions that don’t meet the minimum will be removed from the site.

Actual active petitions range from the very specific (fire Ken Salazar as Secretary of the Interior), to the very general (end legal abuse), to the very odd (requiring the government to disclose details of its communications with aliens from space).

A Horse Race

Of the 200-plus petitions listed on the site in mid-October, four addressed horses--one to stop all wild horse round-ups, one to reform the Bureau of Land Management’s policy for managing wild horses and burros, one opposed to horse slaughter, and one in favor of slaughter. (The Ken Salazar petition probably fits into the wild horse category, too, but I’m not counting it here.)

Among the four, the slaughter ban petition has collected the most signatures (nearly 5,500), followed by BLM reform (5,000-plus), restoration of horse slaughter (almost 4,000), and a ban on all wild horse round-ups (less than 2,000). All four were launched in late September, when the threshold for administrative review was 5,000 signatures. The slaughter ban and BLM reform already have met the minimum number of signatures and a White House response should be forthcoming; the more general ban on wild horse round-ups and a call to restore slighter probably won’t make it.

If the petitions are a referendum on issues, bans on slaughter and wild horse round-ups are the winners.

There’s no guarantee that anything will happen if a petition makes it through all of the necessary political hoops, and I’m cynical enough to think that it’s all window dressing. On the other hand, maybe the President (or at least someone in the White House) does read the mail and actually pays attention to the concerns of citizens. I hope that’s true.

What would you like to tell the Obama Administration about horses?