How to Start a Petition That Will Make the Right Impact

Last reviewed: June 19, 2024

Learning how to start a petition to influence a local decision is much simpler than you might imagine. All you need to do is condense your wording so that you describe the major point. Start your petition writing with the words "We the undersigned." Then complete the sentence with your main point in ideally five to ten words. 

hand holding a pen

Remember that your purpose in petition writing is either to demonstrate that you have an impressive number of people behind you or to raise a new issue. You are not writing a research paper, this is not creative writing, and often you are not even citing your arguments or statistics. You are advancing a statement based on values, emotion, and sheer numbers in order to gain a platform in which you can speak to facts and your reasoning in detail. 

Petition writing is not time-consuming or especially demanding. But you will be most effective if you tailor your petition drive to the seven "do's" and five "don'ts" below.

When you consider how to start a petition, don't be too creative. Stay with a format that decision makers will recognize instantly. For example, you might write, "We the undersigned oppose the zoning proposal of ABC Corporation at 123 Main Street."

If your drive is primarily the project of one well-respected organization, you should include that fact.  For example you might begin with a statement such as, "We the undersigned members and friends of the West Side Neighborhood Association respectfully request that you consider our position against the multi-family zoning proposal at 123 Main Street." By the way, if your organization is quite controversial, consider leaving its name off of the petition itself. Your members can still sign as individuals.

A title for your petition is optional.  If you write one, keep it very brief.  If you cannot think of what to write, just let your petition speak for itself, just as a letter to a friend does not typically have a title or a subject line.  But on each page, repeat either the title, the first paragraph, or a phrase about the subject matter.

Many people arriving at this site are searching for information on writing a legal petition. In addition to following the tips on this page about a petition aimed at just reflecting public opinion, if you are creating a petition that has to conform to legal rules, be very clear on the pertinent law.  Have an attorney draft the legal petition if you are not absolutely sure what is required. An attorney in your neighborhood may be willing to do this work free (called "pro bono" work) if it is not very time-consuming. 

On this site we are concentrating on drives that are intended to influence decision makers, but not to force an action in a legal sense. If you too are only trying to persuade or raise a new issue, you definitely do not need an attorney to draft your petition.

Below are some ground rules for what to say after your opening sentence.   If you are bringing up a complex topic that is not on the immediate agenda of the board of selectmen, city council, or other group you are petitioning, understand that several sentences may be needed to express your point of view.

Incidentally, we think hand-signed petitions still carry far more weight than electronically circulated and signed documents. This is especially true in neighborhoods, small towns and cities, and rural areas, where the personal touch is everything. Decision makers realize that standing or walking around looking for people who want to sign your petition requires much more energy than pushing a few buttons on your computer.

If an electronic petition is your only option because you don't have volunteers who have time to circulate the petition, it will be better than nothing, especially where the population trends toward young people and a high level of technology use. Just be aware that part of the reason that petitions still influence some people is that the effort required commands their respect. At this time we still suggest that you print a copy of your electronic petition for presentation in person. 

During the pandemic, the electronically circulated petition is sometimes your only option. But where outdoor collection of signatures is possible, even if that means going door-to-door with the person circulating the petition staying outdoors, choose that option. There's something about the infinite variety of handwriting that lends an air of credibility to the process.

Tips on How to Start a Petition

Below are the things that we recommend you should DO.

1. Explain your topic and point of view just as briefly as possible. Remember that you have two audiences for a petition: (a) a prospective signer, and (b) a busy distracted decision maker. If the item is already in the public eye, simply state which side of the fence you prefer or what process you request.  As you learn how to start a petition, you will find that for some topics, only one long sentence, or two or three short ones, will be sufficient.

2. If you are opposing or supporting a current agenda item (whether on a formal written agenda or not), after you have stated your position, list your two to four best arguments, again in the briefest language possible.

You will gather fewer signatures if people feel they are being asked to sign something they don't want to take time to read.

Elected officials, especially those who already have taken an opposite stance, don't need or appreciate a long argument at the beginning of a petition. For the receiving officials, it's usually all about who signed or didn't sign!

3. After this, simply place blanks on the page for the name and address of each signer. Be sure to number each line; one of the main points of a successful petition drive is the number of valid signatures collected.  If you wish, you can have people both sign and print their names. It's amazing how illegible some signatures are.

Of course, if you're following a legal petition process, include any information required by law for the petition to be valid (examples would be mailing address, precinct number, and so forth), and make sure that those who sign include all data needed. Many petitions require a check mark for whether the person is a registered voter.

4. Make any arguments that you add to the petition sound as rational and reasonable as possible. If your purpose is to make an emotional plea, make a video instead. A petition is by nature a formal-looking document, so keep it responsible-sounding and business-like.  If you can't, try a different tactic.

5. Keep it short. We did say that already, but it bears repeating.  One good paragraph is the best advice on how to start a petition, unless you're trying to bring a new topic to public light.  Anything more than three paragraphs is way too long, even if you are raising a brand new issue that decision makers have not been discussing and may not understand very well.

Let's add another reason to remain brief—the more you say, the more likely you are to irritate a potential signer or decision maker with a minor point that really is not central to the argument you are making in your petition.

6. Slant the wording to appeal to the interests of the person or persons who will be receiving the petition. If you are students wondering about how to start a petition to the principal, think like a principal for a minute.

If you are a neighborhood and you want the city council to give you more money for your community project, what would convince you if you were a member of that council? Are you feeling that money is tight, or are you feeling good about the financial position of the city? Word your masterpiece accordingly.

7. Consider arranging for an impact-enhancing order of the signatures, especially in a smaller town.  Sign your own name first, since people don't like to be the first to sign.  After that, though, if you expect to have signatures from people who are influential with your target audience signing your petition, see if you can have their signatures near the top.  Elected officials are busy people too, so they may not read every single signature.  They will look at the number of total signatures, but in smaller places, they will be affected by who signed, as well as how many.

Now we will cover some things that we recommend that you NOT do.

1. Do not give a complete history of the issue, unless you feel that is essential for decision makers to understand your point. If you feel you need to write a lot to educate possible signers, think about whether it is possible to teach your points verbally when you present the petition in a meeting.  However, if you will be intercepting shoppers or people on a sidewalk to seek signatures, you may want to think through whether a petition is really the right tactic if your issue will require extensive explanation in order to obtain a signature.

2. Inflammatory, exaggerated, or all-or-nothing language in a petition is not productive. Statements about everyone knowing something or everybody voting against the incumbents if they don't do what you want will only raise defenses. Name calling, abusive language, and overly emotional pleas don't inspire respect. Of course you want firm and forceful language, but pattern yourselves after a business letter and not a rant on social media.

3. Do not make threats. The petition should show solidarity in the community or neighborhood, but it's not the place to explain the consequences of bad behavior to the people on whose vote you depend.

4. Do not narrow down your pool of potential signers by being too specific. For example, if your group wishes to oppose a rezoning, but there are two or more reasons floating around, do not unnecessarily limit your pool of signers by including only one reason. Simply include both as arguments, unless a particular point is controversial with your possible signers.

5. Do not play games by asking residents of other communities or minors to sign your petition. If an official spots just one instance of appearing to pad the number of signatures, you lose your advantage.

Summary of Writing and Circulating a Petition

Remember that learning how to start a petition is valuable for a neighborhood or community activist, even if you are brand new in that role today. Seriously, it is easy. 

Clear, direct, respectful language expressing your main idea in one paragraph, or up to three paragraphs if you are raising a brand new issue, is how to start a petition. You can do it.

To circulate your new masterpiece, I recommend that you find reliable people to hand carry it around the neighborhood. Be sure to visit coffee houses or any other popular hangouts. School, civic, and children's sports events may present the opportunity to gather more signatures with less work. If you have a block captain or block unit system, use it. It may be tempting to use high school students or some other ready pool of labor, but consider whether your carriers can react appropriately to challenges and questions.

Print a few copies and have an appropriate number of people start the petition, rather than trying to have one person catch up with everyone. Decision makers will overlook blank lines at the end of unfilled petition forms. In fact, the implication that you had several or many people willing to circulate this document may be impressive in itself.

Give each person distributing the petition a deadline for returning it, and make sure directions for returning it are clear and easy.  Don't let petitions straggle in the evening of the meeting for two good reasons:  (1) if you do that, you risk appearing disorganized, which is the opposite of the impression you are trying to create, and (2) last-minute or on-the-spot collection of all the petitions means you will not have time to cross out any duplicates or unqualified signers that you see.  Taking care to present only a list of appropriate signatures will help give your cause credibility.

Check Out This Further Reading That May Be Related to Your Petition

Join GOOD COMMUNITY PLUS, which provides you monthly with short features or tips about timely topics for neighborhoods, towns and cities, community organizations, and rural or small town environments. Unsubscribe any time. Give it a try.