The campaign to keep a new law that strengthens Maine’s school vaccination requirements won an overwhelming victory Tuesday.

With 76 percent of polling places reporting shortly after 1 a.m. Wednesday, the “No on 1” vote was winning 73 percent to 27 percent in a referendum that asked voters whether they wanted to overturn or keep the law. Vote tallies were 214,110 “no” votes to 74,255 “yes” votes.

At the “No on 1” election watch party at Salvage BBQ in Portland, hundreds waited for the returns to come in, and the mood was festive. Red heart-shaped balloons were positioned behind the podium.

“This vote means that parents of vulnerable kids, parents of infants, and older adults don’t have to fear anymore. This vote has brought back hope and has brought back sanity,” said Caitlin Gilmet, co-chair of Maine Families for Vaccines.

The “no” vote was widespread throughout Maine, winning big in the cities, small towns and rural areas. In South Portland, 86 percent voted “no,” while 73 percent voted against the referendum in Bangor and 75 percent were opposed in Lewiston.

The vote assures that Maine will be one of the five states that forbid all non-medical exemptions to school-required vaccines, joining California, New York, Mississippi and West Virginia. California and New York passed laws after measles outbreaks in recent years caused by waning vaccination rates. Maine has the highest pertussis rate in the country.

Gov. Janet Mills said in a statement, that maintaining the law “is the right thing to do for the health and safety of our kids.”

Those looking to repeal the new law gathered more than 77,000 signatures last summer to force the People’s Veto on the March ballot.

Cara Sacks, the “Yes on 1” campaign manager, told supporters at the election watch party in Augusta on Tuesday night that she is “very sorry” that the campaign failed.

“This is not the outcome that we wanted or we worked so hard for,” Sacks said in a video the group posted to Facebook. “This vote is not a true indication of where the people of Maine stand on this issue.”

But voters interviewed at the polls on Tuesday supported vaccines and keeping the law in place.

Fran and Jean Ouellette were among the voters casting ballots at the South Portland Community Center Tuesday morning. They were drawn to vote against Question 1.

“I’m a registered nurse,” Fran Ouellette said. “I don’t want to go backwards and put everyone in danger. And not just kids. Elderly people, too. I remember how it was. I don’t want everyone to get sick.”

Rebecca Labor-Smith, also voting at the South Portland Community Center, said she voted “no” on Question 1.

“It’s terrifying to think we could see the return of these preventable diseases,” Labor-Smith said. She said in recent years there was a pertussis outbreak at South Portland High School.

Barbara Grant of South Portland said she’s a retired schoolteacher, and she has “seen the impact of unvaccinated children in school.”

“I am a strong ‘no’ vote,” Grant said.

The debate over vaccines took center stage this winter, with “No on 1” and “Yes on 1” signs all over the state, more than $1 million in advertising between the two campaigns, two television debates, one radio debate and multiple campaign events.

A “yes” vote would have overturned the new law that eliminates non-medical exemptions for school-required vaccines. A “no” vote keeps the law – set to go into effect in 2021 – which aims to improve public health by boosting vaccination rates. Maine traditionally has one of the highest kindergarten opt-out rates in the nation – in 2018-19 non-medical opt-outs stood at 5.6 percent.

Maine had 446 pertussis cases in 2018, giving it a pertussis rate of 33.16 cases per 100,000, which was more than eight times the national average. Maine had 383 pertussis cases in 2019. The national figures are not yet available for last year.

Vaccines are safe and effective at preventing diseases, and have prevented millions of diseases since the introduction of vaccines for what were once common childhood diseases like measles, mumps, pertussis, polio and chickenpox.

Despite these advances in science, the “Yes on 1” campaign argued that the law infringed on parental rights. The “Yes on 1” said a vote to overturn the law would “reject Big Pharma.”

The vaccine referendum campaign began after a contentious and dramatic vote in the Maine Legislature last year. The Maine Senate voted twice on the law before finally passing it by one vote in May.

As the ballots were counted Tuesday night, supporters ate ribs and hush puppies and drank draft beer, stopping to cheer when updated results flashed on TV screens over the bar.

Dr. Laura Blaisdell, a Yarmouth pediatrician and one of the campaign co-chairs, said she trusted that voters understood the issue but wasn’t surprised by the opposition to the vaccine law.

“Our opposition group is passionate and very tenacious, but the vote tonight goes to show that when it comes to community immunity, Mainers understand that we all need to partake in it,” she said.

Asked whether the growing threat of coronavirus was on voters’ minds, Blaisdell said she’s been asked the question a lot.

“I think that perhaps what has happened is people are aware now that when public experts speak, they speak with authority – and that we are the ones that are on the front lines, and I think coronavirus reminded us of that.”

 

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