AUGUSTA, Maine — Opponents of a new Maine law repealing religious and personal exemptions to school vaccine requirements expect their people’s veto bid to make the March 2020 ballot, while others aimed at other Democratic-led laws are less certain.
Those campaigns are in their last days of signature-gathering ahead of a Sept. 19 deadline to submit just over 63,000 signatures from registered voters to the secretary of state’s office, since the signatures must be verified by local clerks before then.
Three well-organized campaigns had a 90-day window to gather the signatures to delay laws that passed the Democratic-led Legislature this year to expand vaccine requirements, allow abortions to be funded with state money in Medicaid and allow doctors to prescribe life-ending medication to terminally ill patients and send them to the ballot.
David Boyer, a consultant for Mainers for Health and Parental Rights, the group leading the challenge to the vaccine law, said Monday volunteers have gotten roughly 90 percent of the roughly 70,000 to 80,000 signatures with paid gatherers collecting the rest.
He said the campaign submitted signatures to municipal clerks for verification on a rolling basis and there has been “a high validity rate” making him “confident” it will make the ballot.
The socially conservative Christian Civic League of Maine is leading the challenges to the other two laws and was holding an all-day signing event in several cities and towns on Tuesday, but it hasn’t been submitting signatures to clerks on a rolling basis.
That led Carroll Conley, the group’s executive director, to say “we just don’t know” when asked about the chances of making the ballot on Tuesday. But he said he’s “hearing good things” about volunteer efforts across the state. Collection will run through Wednesday.
The vaccine law was a response to rising opt-out rates in Maine, which had a higher rate than all but six states during the 2017-18 school year. Hundreds of opponents packed a legislative hearing in March, making arguments ranging from those of personal freedom and choice — the main point of people’s veto leaders — to a debunked link between vaccines and autism.
“It’s a gross overreach of medical and religious freedom,” said Kaleigh Van Der Swaagh, a 33-year-old mother from Northport who has been collecting signatures. “This grassroots movement has been so overwhelmingly moving.”
The efforts could have a hard time in the March 3 election, when Maine Democrats will choose their nominee to face President Donald Trump in 2020. Secretary of State Matt Dunlap’s office initially gave the incorrect guidance that the people’s veto election would be next June.
Another grassroots group called Maine Families for Vaccines, which helped pass the law, would oppose the people’s veto effort. Caitlin Gilmet, a spokeswoman for that group, said opponents of it are “a very vocal minority” and she’s “confident Maine families will continue to put the health of their loved ones first” if a campaign develops.
BDN writer Abigail Curtis contributed to this report.