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Poll: Death penalty repeal gaining, but many undecided

A correctional officer in Death Row at San Quentin Prison. ((Photo: California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation)

Next year California voters may be asked to again weigh in on whether the state should repeal its long-standing death penalty law.  Californians narrowly defeated a similar constitutional amendment, Proposition 62, by a 53% to 47% margin just four and one-half years ago in the November 2016 election

According to press reports, the state Legislature is considering placing another constitutional amendment about the death penalty before voters in the 2022 statewide elections.  

In its latest statewide survey, the Berkeley IGS Poll asked registered voters how they would vote on such an amendment if the election were held today.  The results indicate that 44% of voters say they would vote Yes to repeal the state’s death penalty law, 35% would vote No to keep the law in force, while a relatively large proportion, 21%, are undecided.

With so many voters undecided, the outcome of a proposition vote remains unpredictable at this early stage.” — Eric Schickler

Opinions about capital punishment have long divided voters sharply along partisan and ideological lines, with liberals and registered Democrats overwhelmingly in support of its repeal, and large majorities of Republicans and conservatives opposed. 

Current support for repeal is strongest among the state’s Black voters, residents of the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles County, and voters age 18-29.  Women are also more inclined to favor the death penalty’s repeal than men.  By contrast, pluralities of voters in the Central Valley, Inland Empire or Orange County are lining up against its repeal.

IGS Co-Director Eric Schickler noted, “The split on the death penalty mirrors the larger partisan and ideological divisions in the state, but with so many voters undecided, the outcome of a proposition vote remains unpredictable at this early stage.”

The poll also finds that voter opinions of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s 2019 executive order imposing a moratorium on all executions while he was governor mirror their voting preferences on the constitutional amendment to repeal the death penalty, with 48% supporting Newsom’s action, 33% opposed and 19% having no opinion.

Plurality supports proposed constitutional amendment to repeal the state’s death penalty law.
The latest Berkeley IGS Poll completed in early May asked registered voters how they would vote on a proposed constitutional amendment that would repeal the state’s death penalty law.  The results indicate that a plurality of voters (44%) say they would vote Yes in favor of its repeal, while 35% would vote No.  However, a relatively large proportion of voters, 21%, say they are undecided.

Registered Democrats back its repeal 63% to 19%, while Republicans oppose doing so 68% to 12%, while views of the state’s No Party Preference registrants closely approximate those of the overall electorate.

Pluralities of voters living in the Central Valley, Inland Empire or Orange County are initially lining up against its repeal, and San Diego County voters are about evenly divided.

Support for the death penalty’s repeal is nearly universal among voters who describe themselves as strongly liberal in politics, with 83% in favor and just 7% opposed. By contrast, about two-thirds of the state’s conservatives are opposed. Voters who describe themselves as moderate in politics, and who comprise about a third of the electorate, hold mixed views, with slightly more against its repeal (37%) than in favor (33%), and another 30% undecided.  

Segments of the voting population displaying high levels of support for repealing the death penalty include Blacks (54%), voters living in the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area (54%) or Los Angeles County (49%), and younger voters age 18-29 (49%).  Women are also more inclined to favor the death penalty’s repeal than men. 

On the other hand, pluralities of voters living in the Central Valley, Inland Empire or Orange County are initially lining up against its repeal, and San Diego County voters are about evenly divided.

Views of Gov. Newsom’s 2019 executive order placing a moratorium on all executions in California mirror voting preferences about the constitutional amendment.
In March 2019, shortly after his election as governor, Newsom signed an executive order placing a moratorium on the implementation of the death penalty while he was in office, saying the system was “unfair, unjust and unequal,” and citing its heavy cost, both in financial and moral terms.

When voters in the current survey were asked their views of Newsom’s executive order, opinions mirror those of the constitutional amendment to repeal the death penalty, with 48% supporting Newsom’s executive order, 33% opposed and 19% having no opinion.

Subgroup distributions are also similar to voting preferences on the proposed constitutional amendment.  Democrats support Newsom’s action 70% to 14%, Republicans oppose it 71% to 13%, while greater than eight in ten strong liberals endorse Newsom’s order and two in three conservatives oppose it. 

However, political moderates and voters living in the Central Valley, Inland Empire or Orange County offer a somewhat more divided assessment of Newsom imposing a moratorium on executions in California than their views on the outright repeal of the death penalty law.

Editor’s Note: 
The findings in this report are based on a Berkeley IGS Poll completed by the Institute of Governmental Studies (IGS) at the University of California, Berkeley. Funding for the poll was provided in part by the Los Angeles Times. Results are based on the responses of 5,036 California registered voters.  The survey was administered online in English and Spanish April 29 – May 5, 2021 by distributing email invitations to random samples of voters.

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