Opponents of vaccination requirements for schoolchildren had a big victory last week when they presented petitions to the Secretary of State’s Office, which, they say, contain enough signatures to force a statewide vote on the issue next March.

State election officials are reviewing the documents to see if the people’s veto backers are right. They will check to see if the petitions were properly notarized and certified by various town and city clerks.

But they won’t be asking whether the voters really understood what they were signing. And they won’t be looking into whether signature gatherers gave misleading descriptions of their cause. Those are questions that the state can’t ask, and that it shouldn’t ask.

As often happens in referendum campaigns, there have been a number of cases of “signer’s remorse,” in which people claim they were lied to by the person with the clipboard.

Some claim that they were told that the referendum would strengthen Maine’s vaccination requirements when it would do exactly the opposite.

The petition gatherers were seeking to strike down a new state law that allows only medical exemptions for vaccine requirements, eliminating religious and undefined “philosophical” opt-outs.

If they win at the polls, the law stays at the status quo, which has given Maine one of the highest rates of unvaccinated schoolchildren in the nation as well as one of the highest rates of infectious diseases like whooping cough (pertussis). There is no way you could spin that as strengthening the current law.

Voters who say they signed under false pretexts have asked for their names to be removed from the petitions, but there is no mechanism in state law for that. And there is no requirement for signature gatherers to stick to a script. What people say about a cause that they support is exactly the kind of political speech that is guaranteed by the First Amendment. We should never ask the state to determine which political actor is lying and which is telling the truth.

Fortunately, there is a very powerful protection for voters that every petition gatherer must provide – it’s the text of the bill in question.

No one should sign a petition without reading the text, no matter how charming or persuasive the person with the clipboard is.

If the petition gatherer won’t show you the text, don’t sign.

If you don’t understand the bill, don’t sign.

If you are too busy to read it right now, don’t sign.

Petition circulators are typically paid by the signature and would like you to sign quickly so they can move on to the next voter, but that will not protect you from giving your support to something that you don’t agree with. And don’t accept the argument that you are being asked to sign “just to get it on the ballot.” Every single signature will be rightly counted as an endorsement by the bill’s backers. You either back the bill or you oppose it – there’s no such vote as “just getting it on the ballot.”

Hopefully more people will hear about the accidental anti-vaxxers and get the message: There’s no reason for there to ever be “signer’s remorse.”

 

 

 


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