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Politics

Warren broadens reach by joining petition website

Online activists push causes from quirky to weighty

Senator Elizabeth Warren.

Pete Marovich for The Boston Globe/file

Senator Elizabeth Warren.

WASHINGTON — Already one of the highest-profile Democrats in the country and a prolific Internet fund-raiser, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts is seeking to expand her influence on the Web by inviting a connection to the hundreds of thousands of people who sign online petitions.

Warren last month became the first US senator to formally align herself with a com-
mercial Internet site, called change.org, that claims to be the world’s largest forum for electronic petitions, serving up a smorgasbord of causes — from ridding the world of nuclear weapons to giving Kim Kardashian a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

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Warren is joined as a formally designated “decision maker’’ on the change.org site by a small but diverse group of Washington lawmakers that also includes Republican Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the former vice presidential nominee.

The designation means petition sponsors can direct their petitions to Warren, with the expectation that she will consider their cause.

Politicians have already discovered, perhaps somewhat belatedly, Facebook and Twitter. But this is something new.

‘It’s a great new way for people to connect with Congress.’

Senator Elizabeth Warren, on her affiliation with change.org, a forum for online petitions 
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In an age when well-heeled Washington lobbyists compete for the attention of lawmakers, the business executives behind change.org hope creating a direct link to a lawmaker like Warren will give grass-roots citizens a better shot of being heard.

In turn, by affiliating herself with the site, Warren is attempting to turn the burgeoning field of online petitions to her advantage. She gains an instant platform to raise her profile among activists and petitioners of all stripes, while gaining at least an appearance of being responsive to the grass-roots.

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Political money is another byproduct. The move gives fresh opportunities to identify potential contributors to a variety of political committees and groups who support Warren and are active on the site — such as the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and EMILY’s List.

The suffix “.org’’ at the end of a Web address typically
denotes nonprofit status. But in this case, the suggestion
of nonprofit is illusory. Change.org is a private, for-profit enterprise. Based in San Francisco, it says it combines “the values of a nonprofit with the flexibility and innovation of a tech startup.’’

It makes money by selling petition sponsorships for organizers who want to gain greater visibility for their causes on the site, attract more signatures, and generate more connections on the site.

Warren’s office declined to make the senator available for an interview. In a statement from Warren contained in a press release from change.org, the senator emphasized the link’s value to voters.

“It’s a great new way for people to connect with Congress,” Warren said. “I’m excited to start using this additional tool to hear from constituents about the issues that matter most to them.”

How, and whether, Warren will respond to the flood of online petitions that will be directed to her remains unclear. Change.org users have sent Warren more than 75 online petitions — ranging from asking Congress to revoke the NFL’s tax-exempt status to helping an autistic young man get a heart transplant.

Other petitions are seeking high-level intervention for individuals imprisoned domestically or overseas. There also are bizarre-sounding causes, such as “Stop Jimmy Kimmel and ABC from promoting genocide of ALL Chinese people: Jimmy Kimmel must be fired.’’

Few of the petitions directed at Warren thus far pertained exclusively to Massachusetts, although some related to regulation of the financial services industry — which is Warren’s area of expertise. Massachusetts residents now total 623,000 of the website’s 50 million users, making Massachusetts one the most active states for the hub of online activists.

Examples of local petitions that have been posted on the site generally, and not specifically targeting Warren, were a campaign to persuade North Andover High School to drop the suspension of a student who helped a drunk friend after she requested a ride, and a Boston Marathon runner who petitioned to allow competitors to complete the race if they were unable to finish on Marathon day because of the terrorist bombings.

Perhaps the highest-profile example of an online petition site is President Obama’s, at the White House, called “We the People.’’

But that site has received mixed reviews due to the wide variety of trivial issues petitioned and the lack of genuine response from the White House. Complaints also were raised after the White House raised the threshold this year to warrant a response from 25,000 to 100,000.

Change.org says on its website that it believes combining a for-profit business model with social causes is an effective strategy. But the company has come under criticism for its dual approach.

“They’re willing to do anything they need to do and say anything they need to say to disguise the fact that they are a for-profit company,” said Clay Johnson, a tech guru who cofounded Blue State Digital, the firm that managed President Obama’s 2008 online campaign.

Change.org spokesman Jake Brewer scoffed at the idea that any partisan advertisers would actually influence the outcomes of petitions.

“Our users will decide what works and what doesn’t,” he said. “The reason to do ‘decision makers’ is to empower as many people as possible to create the change they want to see.”

Mattias Gugel can be reached at mattias.gugel@globe.com.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the timeframe during which Elizabeth Warren had received 75 petitions.

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