Difficult Decisions

During the course of this legislative session, I have had to make many decisions on how to vote, both in the Judiciary Committee and on the House floor. Many of those decisions have been relatively straightforward. Most of the bills have passed out of the Judiciary Committee on unanimous votes, and many have passed the House unanimously or nearly so.

Decisions on other votes, however, have been more difficult. Two such votes occurred this week, one on a bill to allow voter registration on the same day as voting and the other on a bill to eliminate the philosophical exemption for vaccination for children entering school.

Proponents of the same-day voter registration bill argue that voting is a fundamental right and any barriers to the exercise of that right should be eliminated. Easing the way to vote should bring more people to the polls, and a strong democracy depends on citizen participation. But others are opposed, claiming that same-day registration would make it too easy to register and vote, resulting in increased voter fraud. Elections tainted by voter fraud would undermine the very democratic ideals that free and open elections are supposed to serve.

The bill to eliminate the philosophical exemption for vaccination has been one of the more divisive of the session, as it involves the competing rights of individuals to make health care decisions and rights of a community to be protected from infectious diseases. Proponents and opponents of the philosophical exemption are passionate about the issue.

Proponents of the exemption allege that vaccines are risky and can harm children; it is too difficult to obtain a medical exemption from vaccination; vaccine manufacturers are not liable for the damages they incur and have little incentive to ensure the safety or effectiveness of their vaccines; and the state already has a high vaccination rate (94-98%) and a low rate of invocation of the philosophical exemption. They also assert that removing the exemption takes away the freedom and rights of parents to make educated decisions for their children in a situation where there is no imminent threat that requires the government to intervene.

Opponents of the exemption argue that scientific evidence overwhelmingly supports the safety and favorable risk-benefit ratio of vaccine administration. They reason that philosophical exemptions are associated with clusters of unvaccinated children and outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases; our current Vermont law not only contributes to rising rates of under-vaccinated children, but also puts others at risk, including children and adults with diseases or treatments that impact their immune system and those too young to be vaccinated; children, elderly, and immuno-compromised patients deserve to live in a place made safer by higher vaccination rates; parents do not have a right to put other children at risk by not vaccinating their own children; and once-vanquished diseases such as pertussis and measles are resurging as a result of declining vaccinations. In short, they assert that achieving high rates of vaccination in schools is a public health imperative to which individual choice should give way.

The decisions I had to make on these bills provide an opportune time to elaborate on my decision-making process in the legislature. There are many factors that go into my thinking when I decide how to vote.

One consideration is certainly the input that I receive from constituents. I do take into consideration the views that constituents express when they contact me or meet with me at my weekly sessions at the Panera on Shelburne Road. When I receive input from constituents, I do not simply count the pros versus the cons on the issue. I do not let the squeakiest wheel control my deliberation. Rather, I consider the arguments that constituents make and review the facts and supporting materials that they refer me to in order to arrive at my own conclusions.

Nevertheless, what my constituents might or might not think about an issue can only go so far in influencing my vote. It would not be possible for me to cast every vote in the legislature as the majority of my constituents might want me to in part because I simply cannot determine what that majority might think on each issue. Doing so would require me to poll District 7-1 each time a decision has to be made, which, of course, would be extraordinarily difficult if not impossible. Occasionally, however, a state-wide poll may be available on an issue, which can give a sense of where the broader community falls on a particular issue.

When considering certain bills, I also reach out to community members who I know have an interest in or expertise on an issue. For example, I spoke with Tom DiPietro, South Burlington’s Deputy Director of Public Works, to learn more about the city’s interests in the water quality bill the House considered earlier in the session. I also spoke with Donna Kinville, the South Burlington City Clerk, about same-day voter registration. I do not necessarily follow all of the advice that I receive from these community members, but I rely on them to help me make an informed decision.

On bills before the Judiciary Committee, I have the opportunity to gain detailed knowledge on the issues involved. The committee takes testimony from witnesses with various expertise, experiences, and viewpoints and committee members have the opportunity to ask them questions. We review materials that witnesses provide and that we locate through our own research. We receive guidance from attorneys of the Legislative Council and economists from the Joint Fiscal Office. In short, we become well versed in the issues related to the bills over which the Judiciary Committee has jurisdiction.

Because the issues that the legislature addresses are so varied, complicated, and numerous, it is not possible to delve as deeply into those bills that come through other committees. Accordingly, I must exercise a certain amount of deference to the judgment of the committees that investigate in depth the issues within their jurisdictions. This does not mean that I simply accept their judgments, although unanimous support for a bill from a bi- or tri-partisan committee does carry weight as to whether I will support its conclusion. To the extent possible, I seek to verify other committees’ conclusions and weigh the counterarguments. In doing so, and when I feel I need more information on the issue, I will also consider the viewpoints of experts and other witnesses from whom the committees have heard.

Typically, by the time a bill reaches the House floor and we are called upon to vote, my position on a topic has solidified. On other occasions, the debate on the House floor may crystalize an issue on which I am still wavering.

An additional factor that may influence my decision is politics. As a freshman legislator, I am still learning how this factor plays out. To date, I have not felt direct pressure from the leadership of the House or the Democratic Caucus to vote in a particular manner. But I also know that if I constantly vote against the majority, my ability to accomplish work on behalf of my constituents will be diminished. This session, I have voted against the party line on occasion. I sponsored an amendment to ban strikes and imposition in the context of teacher collective bargaining, despite the general opposition to this idea by the Democratic Caucus. But this has been one of the few instances where my own views have run counter to the party.

My votes this week on the bill that will allow residents to register to vote on election day and the bill that will eliminate the philosophical exemption for vaccination for children entering school provide examples of how I reach my voting decisions. I did not hear from any constituents on the same-day voter registration bill. I did, however, hear from the South Burlington Town Clerk, who opposed the bill. Primarily, she was concerned about the increased chances of voter fraud that she believes the bill will create. To alleviate this concern, she urged that individuals seeking same-day registration have an ID or other evidence of their residence.

I considered her input in my deliberations. The Government Operations Committee had also considered her input, which she had delivered in testimony, along with the input of other town clerks and the Vermont Municipal Clerks and Treasurers Association. The Committee sought to address these concerns by pushing off the effective date of the bill to January 2017 and requiring a study that would consider, among other issues, how other states with same-day voter registration address what type of proof of residency should be required by individuals seeking to register on election day.

In considering how to vote, I reviewed the rules related to voter registration in Vermont and the voter registration form. That form requires an individual to affirm that he or she meets the requirements to vote in the district: a United States citizen, a resident of the town in which he or she wishes to vote, and at least 18 years old. The individual must also take a voter’s oath. The form makes clear that giving false information as to one’s qualifications to be registered to vote in the town can result in penalties of up to $10,000 or imprisonment for not more than 15 years. I felt that the requirements and warnings set forth in this form would act as an adequate disincentive to most individuals who might consider trying to register fraudulently. I also reviewed reports and other evidence that had been provided to the Government Operations Committee and were available on its website that indicated the very low incidence of voter fraud.

From this review and from listening to the debate on the House floor, I was satisfied that the minimal risks of an increase in voter fraud did not outweigh the benefits of removing barriers to an individual’s ability to exercise his or her fundamental right to vote. I accordingly voted for the bill, which passed the House. In many states, Republican-controlled legislatures are introducing, not eliminating, barriers to voting, with the likely result of disenfranchising many impoverished and under-represented citizens. I’m proud that Vermont is taking a different approach.

In considering how to vote on the bill to eliminate the philosophical exemption, I considered the viewpoints of and facts offered by constituents, experts, and the Health Care Committee, and points made during the floor debate and in a packed public hearing. On this issue, I received more emails and calls from constituents than any other issue that has come before the legislature this session. All but one of these constituents urged me to vote to remove the philosophical exemption. I received emails from many other Vermonters including South Burlington residents outside District 7-1, many who sought to keep the exception in place. I also noted that a state-wide poll shows that over 70% of Vermonters support eliminating the exemption.

I reviewed materials that individuals referred me to and those that were available on the Health Care Committee’s website. On the one hand, I did empathize with many of the points that proponents of the exemption advanced, including their desire to make individual decisions that they viewed as in the best interest of their children. I was most troubled by the apparent difficulty that individuals face when they try to obtain medical exemptions to vaccinations.

On the other hand, I accept the scientific consensus that vaccines are safe and effective, a high vaccination rate is necessary to obtain so-called herd immunity in order to protect vulnerable individuals who are unable to be vaccinated, and the risks of harm from vaccinations are outweighed by the risks from infectious diseases that vaccinations protect against. I also was influenced by the fact that Vermont has one of the lowest vaccination rates in New England and that other surrounding states without the philosophical exemption have higher vaccination rates. The testimony of Vermont Health Commissioner Harry Chen and from a number of respected doctors supporting elimination of the exemption carried significant weight. Also, the bill modifies the provision relating to obtaining medical exemptions, making such exemptions easier to obtain. Moreover, by eliminating the philosophical exemption, doctors will need to consider patients’ requests for the medical exemption instead of simply advising them to exercise the philosophical exemption. Finally, during debate, I felt that those who supported eliminating the exemption were able to effectively answer all of the arguments in favor of keeping the exemption in place.

Ultimately, I was swayed by the view that individual liberties must be balanced against the responsibilities that individuals have toward the community in which they live and so I voted for the bill to eliminate the exemption, which bill passed the House. Having one’s children vaccinated before they enter school, unless one receives a medical exemption or invokes a religious exemption, is part of the responsibility that parents should undertake for the sake of the community’s public health.

These decisions were not easy, but in the end I think that they were in the best interest of my South Burlington constituents and Vermont.

I believe that voters gave me the honor of representing them because they expected that I would use my best judgment on the issues that are important to South Burlington and Vermont. They expect that I will evaluate the facts and policies that lie beneath the problems the legislature is asked to resolve, consider the proposed solutions and the consequences of those proposals, listen to and understand the input I receive from constituents, and use my experience and intelligence to arrive at what I believe to be the best outcome.