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Poll: Death penalty repeal narrowly backed

San Quentin state prison, home of California's death row, which currently holds nearly 750 inmates. (Photo: Mark R., via Shutterstock)

Proposition 62, the initiative to repeal the death penalty in California and replace it with life in prison without the possibility of parole, is narrowly supported by likely voters. The latest Field-IGS Poll finds 48% of likely voters saying they intend to vote Yes when presented with the official ballot summary that voters will see when voting on Prop. 62 in the November election. This compares to 37% who intend to vote No, while 15% are undecided.

In addition to Prop. 62, Californians will also be asked to vote on a competing death penalty initiative, Proposition 66, which calls for changing procedures governing challenges to the death penalty and is intended to speed its implementation. When presented with its official ballot summary, many voters are unsure how they’ll vote on Prop. 66. While 35% say they are inclined to vote Yes and 23% would vote No, a plurality (42%) are undecided.

(Ed’s Note: The complete survey, its graphics materials and a description of its methodology, can be seen here.)

The poll also updated a Field Poll time series first posed in 2009 asking voters which penalty they preferred for someone convicted of first degree murder. The findings indicate that 55% of Californians now favor life in prison without the possibility of parole, while 45% prefer the death penalty. This represents a continuing shift in voter support in favor of life in prison over the death penalty. In 2009, a plurality preferred the death penalty.

However, history suggests that when voter support for a controversial ballot initiative like repealing the death penalty remains below 50%, its passage is uncertain, even when leading in the polls. A good example of this was seen four years ago when California voters were last asked to repeal the death penalty through another statewide ballot measure, Proposition 34. In that year The Field Poll’s final survey, completed one week before the November election, showed Prop. 34 clinging to a narrow 45% to 38% lead. However, on Election Day the Yes side failed to get above the needed 50% threshold and Prop. 34 was defeated 52% to 48%.

Death penalty repeal initiative (Prop. 62) narrowly favored; Plurality undecided about competing initiative to speed the death penalty’s implementation
Likely voters in this survey were presented with both Prop. 62’s and Prop. 66’s official “ballot labels,” which are the summaries describing each initiative that voters will see when voting in the November general election, and asked how they would vote if the election were held today. The results indicate that slightly less than half (48%) are now intending to vote Yes on Prop. 62 to repeal the death penalty, 37% are on the No side and 15% are undecided.

When asked about Prop. 66, the initiative to change death penalty procedures to speed its implementation, a plurality of voters (42%) are undecided. Of those offering an opinion, 35% are on the Yes side and 23% are intending to vote No.

The following table displays the official ballot labels of each initiative and how likely voters in the Field/IGS Poll responded when asked how they would vote if the election were held today.

Subgroup battle lines much better defined in relation to Prop. 62 than Prop. 66
When voting preferences on the two competing death penalty initiatives are examined across major subgroups of the likely voter population, Prop. 62’s battle lines are much more clearly defined at this stage than those relating to Prop. 66.

The voting blocs most supportive of Prop. 62 to repeal the death penalty are Democrats, liberals, voters in the San Francisco Bay Area, millennials, college graduates, and those expressing no religious preference. The voter subgroups lining up against Prop. 62 include Republicans, conservatives, those living in the state’s inland counties, Protestants, and voters with lower levels of formal education.

There is far less variation in voting preferences on Prop. 66 to change death penalty procedures to speed its implementation. Pluralities or near pluralities across most voter subgroups remain undecided. In addition, the Yes side appears to hold narrow leads over the No side among most segments offering an opinion, even those supporting the death penalty’s repeal.

Field Poll time series shows more Californians now prefer life in prison without parole to the death penalty as a penalty for first-degree murder
The poll also updated a Field Poll time series question that asks voters which penalty they favored for someone convicted of first degree murder – the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of parole. The results reveal a growing preference for life in prison without parole over the death penalty among voters over the past seven years.

When this question was first asked in March 2009 more voters favored the death penalty than life in prison without parole.

However, by 2011 voter sentiment had shifted, with a plurality of voters favoring life in prison without the possibility of parole as a punishment for first degree murder. The current poll finds that those supporting life in prison without parole has grown further, with 55% favoring this punishment, and 45% preferring the death penalty.

Many voters appear to be unclear about the intent of Prop. 66
When comparing voter preferences on Props. 62 and 66 to their preferred punishment for those convicted of first-degree murder, the poll indicates that many voters appear to be unclear about the intent of Prop. 66.

For example, among voters who support the death penalty as a penalty for first degree murder, just 38% are currently lining up on the Yes side on Prop. 66, while 24% say they’ll vote No and 38% are undecided. Confusion is also evident among voters who prefer life in prison without the possibility of parole as a punishment for first-degree murder. These voters are about evenly divided when asked about Prop. 66, with 23% intending to vote Yes on Prop. 66, 27% on the No side, and 50% undecided.

Voter intentions regarding Prop. 62 to repeal the death penalty are much better aligned to voter preferences about the penalty for first-degree murder. Voters favoring life in prison as a punishment for first-degree murder are overwhelming on the Yes side when it comes to Prop. 62, while those favoring the death penalty for first-degree murderers are overwhelmingly on the No side.

Ed’s Note: The findings in this report come from a survey of 942 registered California voters conducted jointly by The Field Poll and the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. The survey was completed online by YouGov September 7-13, 2016 in English and Spanish. 

 


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