Cara Sacks

Cara Sacks, co-chairwoman of Mainers for Health and Parental Rights, speaks at a news conference Wednesday before her group delivered petitions to the Secretary of State’s Office in Augusta. The group says it gathered over 92,000 signatures in support of the People’s Veto of the government-mandated vaccine bill. Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press

Some Maine voters are saying they were duped into signing a petition that could lead to a statewide vote in March aimed at repealing a new law that eliminates religious and philosophical exemptions for childhood vaccines.

In emails to the Portland Press Herald and in posts on social media sites, voters are saying they were misled or even lied to by those circulating the petition for a statewide vote on the matter.

Other voters are writing Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, asking him to remove their signatures from the petition. Dunlap’s office provided copies of the emails to the Press Herald, with the senders’ addresses and contact information redacted.

“I was misled by the signature gatherer about what I was signing,” Scarborough voter Jamie Brennan wrote. “I am a strong supporter of the law to mandate vaccinations for kids with only medical exceptions. I was told that the referendum would further strengthen our vaccination laws, not veto the law. Granted I should have read what I was signing, but being in a hurry I took the signature gatherer’s word for it.”

Like others, Brennan was asking that his signature be removed from the petition.

But Dunlap said Friday he can’t do that under state law. Dunlap also said that voters commonly complain they were misled by petitioners after a ballot measure or people’s veto question makes the ballot. He said that’s why state law requires petitioners to have a copy of the law they want to enact or repeal available for a voter’s review as they gather signatures.

“We can’t regulate what people say about their petitions,” Dunlap said. “There is no mechanism to it and, frankly, it comes under the First Amendment anyway.”

Cara Sacks, co-chair of Mainers for Health and Parental Rights, a group that organized the petition drive, disputed the claim that petitioners wer intentionally misleading voters.

“This is clearly being pushed by our opponents because they can’t handle the fact that Maine voters will get to weigh-in on this law pushed through our legislature by Big Pharma,” Sacks said in a written statement. “We simply asked voters to sign a petition to allow the citizens of Maine to vote on the issue of government-mandated vaccines and it’s clear Maine voters want to reject this punitive, regressive and Draconian law. We have the utmost faith in the Secretary of State to verify our 93,000 signatures.”

Dunlap said if those circulating petitions don’t have a copy of the law they want to pass or veto available for review by the voter, that would be a violation of state law that would be investigated because it would mean the petition had been tampered with.

Dunlap said he’s fielded about a dozen complaints about the vaccination law petitioning, including at least six letters like the one from Brennan. He said some state lawmakers have also told him their constituents are complaining to them.

In one letter to Dunlap, a voter complained she was tricked into signing the petition during a visit to her chiropractor, who pitched the measure as a way to keep the government from making decisions about her health.

“I am writing in sincere embarrassment and fear,” Jennifer Belanger of Dayton wrote. “In July, at an appointment with my chiropractor, I felt blindsided and intimidated into signing a ‘petition’ about keeping the government from making decisions about my health. It was as I was on the table for an adjustment, and I agreed to sign.”

Dunlap said that voters need to be aware of what they are signing, just like everybody else.

“Read it,” Dunlap said. “It’s right there on the clipboard. Honestly, it’s one of those caveat emptor situations where people have to be cognizant of what it is they are being asked to sign — buyer, beware.”

The bill, which passed this year by a one-vote margin in the Maine Senate before being signed into law by Gov. Janet Mills, is set to go into effect in September 2021. It eliminates philosophical and religious exemptions and requires that children have vaccinations in order to attend school in Maine. The only waivers granted will be for medical reasons.

The nonmedical opt-out rate for Maine students entering kindergarten climbed from 5 percent in the 2017-18 school year to 5.6 percent in 2018-19, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Medical exemptions doubled, from 0.3 percent to 0.6 percent.

Maine’s opt-out rate is more than three times the national rate of 1.8 percent for kindergartners in 2017-18, the most recent national data available. Maine has the nation’s highest rate of pertussis, a vaccine-preventable respiratory disease.

A group opposed to the new law says it submitted more than 77,000 valid petition signatures to the Secretary of State’s Office on Wednesday, surpassing the threshold needed to place a “people’s veto” of a new vaccine law on the March ballot.

The Secretary of State’s Office will review the petitions over the next 30 days to verify that Mainers for Health and Parental Rights, which circulated the people’s veto petitions, has the signatures of at least 63,054 registered voters, the number needed to get on the ballot.

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