ELLSWORTH — In March, voters will decide whether or not to keep a law that eliminates religious and philosophical exemptions for childhood vaccines.
Secretary of State Matt Dunlap announced Thursday that his office had certified the signatures of 79,056 registered Maine voters on a petition seeking to reinstate exemptions, enough to get the issue put to a people’s referendum on the presidential primary ballot on March 3, 2020.
Proponents of the veto submitted 29,370 petitions with 95,871 signatures to the Elections Division in mid-September. Staff in the division found that 79,056 of the signatures were valid, a release from Dunlap’s office said, while 16,815 were deemed not valid.
Signatures can be deemed invalid for a variety of reasons. In this case, the majority (12,056) of the invalid signatures were not certified as belonging to a registered voter in that municipality, according to a state decision.
Other signatures were deemed invalid because they were duplicates, had been crossed out, were unsigned or the petition had been altered, among other reasons.
The state requires any group attempting to put a measure on the ballot to collect signatures equal to 10 percent of the total number of votes cast in the most recent gubernatorial election. This year, that figure is 63,067.
The June vote to pass the law was tight – clearing the Senate by a single vote – and the fight over the bill was contentious.
A number of Hancock County residents testified at a public hearing on the bill last March. Most were opposed to the bill, with many citing a desire for autonomy in parental decision-making and calling for further research into the efficacy of vaccines, despite the conclusion of most medical experts that, on the whole, vaccines are safe and effective.
If the law is not repealed in March, it would take effect during the 2021 school year and would require children to get certain vaccinations before attending school, unless they have a medical reason that prevents them from being vaccinated, such as leukemia.
Maine’s non-medical vaccination opt-out rate reached an all-time high this year, according to the recent CDC numbers, climbing to 5.6 percent, which is nearly triple the national average for kindergartners in 2016-2017. Medical exemptions doubled, from 0.3 to 0.6 percent.
High school seniors in Hancock County had some of the highest exemption rates, according to the CDC. (It’s worth noting that some of the schools are very small, so in some cases a very high percentage of unvaccinated children may only represent a handful of students.)
If the law survives, Maine would join California, Mississippi, West Virginia and New York in eliminating all but medical exemptions for vaccines.
A group seeking to overturn the law, Mainers for Health and Parental Rights, had raised $161,841 as of Sept. 30.
A Portland Press Herald analysis found that roughly one third of the funding for Mainers for Health and Parental Rights has come from those in the chiropractic industry, including chiropractors, chiropractic assistants and those who are licensed as chiropractic acupuncture specialists. Nearly all of the donors are in Maine, according to the Press Herald.
There were also therapists, counselors, acupuncturists, nurses, an OB/GYN physician and a pediatric cardiologist among the donors.
A Political Action Committee (PAC) defending the law, Maine Families for Vaccines PAC, was set up in late September and has recorded just a single dollar in donations, according to the Maine Ethics Commission.