Jen Boggs said she has known for months how she would vote on the vaccine referendum heading before voters on March 3. But Boggs said she still had to study the language closely when reading over her absentee ballot.

“It did strike me as confusing,” said Boggs, of Portland. “I read it very carefully to make sure I didn’t vote for the wrong thing.”

Boggs, who has already turned in her completed ballot, said she voted “no” because she wants to retain the new law that aims to improve Maine’s school immunization rates.

The People’s Veto referendum will determine whether Maine keeps or rejects a new law that eliminates non-medical exemptions for school-required vaccines.

A “yes” vote jettisons the law, while a “no” vote maintains the law.

The ballot language for Question 1 reads: “Do you want to reject the new law that removes religious and philosophical exemptions to requiring immunization against certain communicable diseases for students to attend schools and colleges and for employees of nursery schools and health care facilities?”

Kristen Muszynski, spokeswoman for the Maine Secretary of State’s Office, said the ballot language was devised by the secretary of state before petitions were circulated last year. But she said people’s veto votes are always tricky to word because “by its very nature you are voting yes to approve a negative.

Allen Armstrong of Portland said, “It feels weird to vote ‘no’ for something I’m in favor of.” Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“There is an inherent double-take for voters,” Muszynski said. To try to head off confusion, the ballot that voters will see also explains what a “yes” vote and a “no” vote means.

Several voters at Portland City Hall on Wednesday – who were voting absentee or had recently voted absentee – said they found the ballot language tricky but ultimately deciphered the wording.

Allen Armstrong, who voted “no” via absentee ballot, wasn’t confused by the wording, but said he was informed on the issue before filling out his ballot. If he hadn’t been keeping up with the news, he might have been more confused, he said.

“It feels weird to vote ‘no’ for something I’m in favor of,” Armstrong said.

Erin Brennan said she read over the ballot carefully before voting “no,” to support vaccines. She said the ballot was somewhat ambiguous.

“I hope I voted the right way,” Brennan said, laughing.

Erin Brennan of Portland, who voted “no” on Question 1, said, “I hope I voted the right way.” Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The Maine Legislature approved the law by one vote last year, after a marathon public hearing attended by hundreds. Advocates say the law – which would go into effect in 2021 if it stands – would protect public health and lessen health risks for immune-compromised students and adults. Those opposed to the law say it infringes on parental rights.

Vaccines are overwhelmingly safe and effective and have prevented millions of diseases and thousands of deaths. A 1998 study that claimed a link between the measles vaccine and autism has been debunked, and the study was retracted.

In areas where vaccination rates waned, there has been a return of infectious diseases, such as measles outbreaks in California and New York.

Kiernan Majerus-Collins of Lewiston, who voted “no,” said he didn’t find the ballot question confusing but could see how voters who haven’t followed the issue would. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Maine had the highest pertussis rate in the nation in 2018, and infectious disease experts said the state’s low vaccination rates for school-required vaccines were partly to blame. The state had 446 cases of the disease, giving it 33.16 cases per 100,000 people, which was more than eight times the national average in 2018. National figures have yet to be released for 2019, when Maine had 383 pertussis cases.

Jeff Hotchkiss of Portland, a Reiki healing arts instructor, said he has his absentee ballot and is undecided on how he will vote. Hotchkiss said he has been following the issue in the news so he is not confused, but he said parts of the wording are ambiguous and he “bets some people will be confused.”

“I think some people will be waking up the day after the election and realize they voted the wrong way,” Hotchkiss said.

The campaigns have been dealing with the ballot language issue for months.

Caitlin Gilmet, co-chair of Maine Families for Vaccines, which is campaigning on the “No on 1” side, said they did internal polling in December and found that 33 percent of voters were confused by the ballot language.

“The polling revealed confusion is our biggest enemy,” Gilmet said.

Ian Koski, a volunteer consultant to “No on 1” who has worked on the campaign’s digital ad program, said they have been testing various messages to make sure people know how to vote.

“The simplest messages are the best,” Koski said. One of the Facebook ads said “Yes on 1=anti-vaccination, No on 1=pro-vaccination.”

Meanwhile, the “Yes on 1” campaign signs tell voters that the “yes” vote will “reject Big Pharma” and other signs say “Vote Yes to Restore Medical Freedom.”

Cara Sacks, the “Yes on 1” campaign manager, said they also are combating confusion about the ballot’s wording.

“We are talking one-on-one with Maine voters about this coercive and ineffective law that is a solution in search of a problem,” Sacks said. “We explain the question with voters to help them understand what a ‘yes’ and a ‘no’ vote means.”

 

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