Deceptive people’s veto tactics don’t work in elections

Signers beware.

That’s the first lesson all Mainers should take away from the recent people’s veto effort targeting vaccine regulations in the state.

This summer, an anti-vaccine group collected signatures to challenge a new law that limits exemptions to vaccine requirements for public school students.

Supporters of Mainers for Health and Parental Rights carry boxes of signed petitions to the Secretary of State’s office, on Sept. 18. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

Under the new law, which is now on hold, children need to be vaccinated unless there’s a legitimate medical reason they shouldn’t be. Gone is the so-called philosophical exemption that has contributed to Maine having one of the highest vaccine opt-out rates in the country.

Maine Public reports that Secretary of State Matt Dunlap has received a large number of complaints from voters who say they were duped into signing the anti-vaccine petitions.

The report follows a similar account from blogger and Maine Beacon contributor Mike Tipping, who received numerous letters and emails from voters saying that petition circulators had misled them into signing.

Getting your children vaccinated is the single best things that you can do to protect their long-term health and give them a head start on life. Vaccines are safe, effective and have helped to significantly reduce or eliminate dangerous childhood diseases that scarred generations of people. Vaccines are the best health care dollars we can spend.

Vaccines also help to protect other people who due to illness cannot be vaccinated themselves. Herd immunity helps to protect us all, but especially people who suffer from diseases that compromise their immune system.

Given the broad support for vaccines, it’s not surprising that anti-vaxxers, as they are sometimes called, might be tempted to resort to deception. At this point, I don’t know whether the tactic flowed from the top or was the reaction of paid signature gathers desperate for more John Hancocks.

Vaccine opponents say they turned in about 78,000 valid signatures by the deadline to place their people’s veto on the March 3 ballot. The secretary of state is now evaluating those signatures to ensure there really are enough to clear the hurdle of 63,067.

Knowing the secretary of state – and having gone through the crucible of people’s vetoes and citizens’ initiatives – I know that his office will thoroughly and fairly scrutinize the petitions for irregularities.

Saying you have 78,000 signatures is one thing. Actually having them is something entirely different.

Deception in politics is nothing new. Candidates and campaigns often stretch the facts or spin information to put their best foot forward.

President Donald Trump has managed to lie more than 12,000 times since taking office to little effect on his most rabid followers.

But with a referendum, the campaign’s integrity is one of its most valuable assets. Voters are smart and Maine people are used to digging into issues that appear on the ballot. Lose their trust and it’s hard to earn back.

Tricks that might have fooled voters into signing a petition — when they are already inclined to support direct democracy efforts, regardless of their feelings on the actual issues — aren’t likely to work in a full blown campaign.

In 2017, a shady developer fought a losing effort to pass a statewide referendum to allow a new casino in York County. Signature gathers for that effort were accused of aggressive tactics and lying to voters to get them to sign.

The campaign spent more than $9 million trying to convince voters that the casino was a good idea, vastly out communicating opponents who spent about $600,000.

When the votes were counted, the misleading TV and radio ads, the false claims by petition gathers, the aggressive tactics and sketchy practices, the secret deals and cloaked financiers all failed.


Voters weren’t fooled, and the casino question lost in a landslide.

Support for vaccines isn’t a partisan issue. Republicans, Democrats and independents all support smart science, public health and reasonable vaccine regulations.

Voters have an obligation to know what they’re signing. The First Amendment allows politicians — and signature gatherers — to say pretty much whatever they want. Voters have to protect themselves.

But I don’t believe those tactics will work in March, if this people’s veto actually makes it to the ballot.

Fool voters once, shame on you. Fool voters twice, shame on us.

Voters won’t be fooled when they cast their ballot.

David Farmer

About David Farmer

David Farmer is a political and media consultant in Portland, where he lives with his wife and two children. He was senior adviser to Democrat Mike Michaud’s campaign for governor and a longtime journalist. You can reach him at