Ballot measures addressing the death penalty in California and Nebraska could lead to a dramatic change in the national debate over capital punishment. But polls show voters in both states are split on whether to keep the death penalty.
Fifty-one percent of voters in California are in favor of abolishing the state’s death penalty and replace it with life without parole, a move that would clear out the largest death row in the United States, according to a new poll released on Thursday.
Abolishing the death penalty in California would have the overnight effect of removing more than a quarter of inmates from death row in the United States.
Forty-five percent of the respondents to said they would vote to keep the death penalty, and the remainder said they were undecided. The survey was conducted by Field Poll (a nonpartisan pollster) and UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies.
Another poll released this week, this one done by the Los Angeles Times, had only 44 percent of respondents say they would vote to repeal the death penalty, compared to 45 percent who said they would keep it. Another 10 percent said they were still undecided.
California houses more than 700 inmates on its death row, more than any other state. Nonetheless, the state carries out few executions — the state has not executed anyone in a decade, and has only executed 13 people since the death penalty was brought back in the 70s.
But voters in California aren’t only being asked whether to remove their state’s death penalty, they are also being asked if they should speed it up.
A competing proposition would make a few changes in an effort to speed up the state’s execution process — it would limit the number of appeals death row inmates are allowed, and allow for less oversight over how execution methods are decided.
Polls show voters are confused by the initiative that would speed up the process. This week’s Los Angeles Times poll found about 20 percent of respondents still didn’t know how to vote on the issue.
Both of this week’s Field and the Los Angeles Times polls show less than a majority are in favor of changing the appeals process, although they both found very different margins: 48 percent in the former and 35 percent in the latter.
If both propositions somehow pass, whichever one receives the most vote governs the state’s death penalty.
Meanwhile, polling in Nebraska is much more limited.
Last year, Nebraska’s unicameral legislature overrode their governor’s veto and abolished the death penalty. But, with significant fundraising provided by Gov. Pete Ricketts, supporters of the death penalty gathered enough signatures to give the voters the ultimate say on whether to keep the death penalty.
Nebraska houses just 10 death row inmates, and the state has only executed three men in the modern era. In an attempt to show how the state could carry out the death penalty, Gov. Ricketts’ department of corrections spent $26,000 on illegal execution drugs from a supplier in India. The drugs were not allowed into the United States, and despite their requests, Nebraska has been unable to get a refund.
So practically speaking, the impact of Nebraska’s death penalty is much less than California’s. But Nebraska matters as a symbol.
When Nebraska’s nonpartisan legislature abolished the death penalty, the anti-death penalty movement held it up as an example that, even in conservatives states, the death penalty is unpopular. If voters decide to bring the death penalty back, it hurts that narrative.
The death penalty is generally supported in Nebraska, although the polling on this specific initiative has been thin.
Back in August, the group aiming to bring back the death penalty sponsored a survey that found 58 percent of those who responded said they would vote to bring back the death penalty. 30 percent said they would vote to leave the death penalty abolished, and 11 percent said they were undecided.
The poll has important caveats though — it was conducted in early August, before ads on the issue had begun to pick up (and the anti-death penalty side has greatly outspent the pro side), and the survey did not use the official ballot language that includes the fact that the death penalty would be replaced by life without parole.
Finally, another conservative state — Oklahoma — also is asking its voters about the death penalty. But there, the practical impact appears to be minimal. It’s more about sending a message.
Over the past several years, Oklahoma has garnered national attention for its repeated botched execution attempts, which eventually earned a grand jury investigation led by the state’s own attorney general. That investigation found the state was “careless, cavalier, and in some circumstances dismissive of established” execution procedures.
After their numerous mistakes, Oklahoma won’t be permitted to carry out executions any time soon. But, with Oklahoma’s petition, supporters of the death penalty can show that they believe the death penalty is still constitutional.
Under the referendum, the legislature would be able to designate any method of execution not specifically prohibited by the US Constitution, and it would declare that the death penalty “shall not be deemed to be or constitute the infliction of cruel or unusual punishment under Oklahoma’s Constitution,” although Oklahoma’s courts given no indication that they actually desire to do so.