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California voters closely divided on death penalty repeal

Wu_Suzanneby Suzanne Wu
Forty-two percent of voters support repealing the death penalty. (Photo/Dylan Oliphant)
Forty-two percent of voters support repealing the death penalty. (Photo/Dylan Oliphant)

With the November election looming, the fight to repeal the death penalty in California has gotten a lot closer, according to the latest results of the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences/Los Angeles Times Poll.

In a 10-point swing since last month, 42 percent of voters surveyed from Oct. 15-21 support repealing Proposition 34, the death penalty initiative, and 45 percent oppose it, when read a brief statement describing Proposition 34, a ballot measure that would ban the death penalty and replace it with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

In September, 38 percent of voters supported Proposition 34, and 51 percent opposed it.

“There’s no question that there has been a sharp shift in favor of a ban on the death penalty, which seems to have resulted from the fact that the initiative’s supporters have been able to fund a much larger advertising campaign than the opposition,” said Dan Schnur, director of the poll and director of the Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. “The Proposition 34 campaign has been on the air and making up ground, but it is historically difficult to pass a ballot measure after it’s been below 50 percent.”

The fight over the death penalty actually reverses when voters were read the ballot language for Proposition 34, rather than a brief statement.

The ballot language includes an explanation of the fiscal impact of the measure, with estimated savings from trials and appeals of $100 million in the first few years, growing to $130 million annually after. It also states that persons found guilty of murder must work while in prison, with their wages applied to victim restitution.

When read the ballot language including fiscal impact, a plurality of voters support repealing the death penalty: 45 percent of voters support Proposition 34 and 42 percent oppose it, with 11 percent undecided. This is a reversal from a month ago when Proposition 34 was behind 44-46, with 8 percent undecided.

Overall, when read the ballot language, white voters were evenly split on repealing the death penalty, 43-43. Among minority voters, 47 percent support repealing the death penalty, including 50 percent of black voters and 48 percent of Latino voters. Forty-one percent of minority voters oppose Proposition 34, including 35 percent of black voters and 39 percent of Latino voters.

By age, older voters were also evenly split on repealing the death penalty when read the ballot language for Proposition 34. Forty-four percent of voters over the age of 50 support Proposition 34, and 44 percent oppose it. Among younger voters ages 18 to 49, 46 percent support Proposition 34, and 40 percent oppose it.

California voters support revising ‘three strikes’ law

Across partisan lines, California voters are overwhelmingly in favor of Proposition 36, which would revise the state’s “three strikes” law and impose life sentences only when the third felony conviction is “serious or violent.”

More than two-thirds of registered Democratic voters and voters with no party preference are in favor of Proposition 36. Among Democratic voters, Proposition 36 is ahead 70-18; among voters with no party preference, Proposition 36 is ahead 68-19. But the measure also has majority support among registered Republicans in California, with 53 percent supporting a revision to the three strikes law and 35 percent opposed.

“This is what happens when tough-on-crime conservatism meets fiscal conservatism in an era of tight budgets,” Schnur said. “Unless the opposition can convince voters that the criminals being affected by this are still dangerous, Proposition 36 looks pretty safe.”

Overall, 64 percent of California voters support Proposition 36 when read the ballot language, and 24 percent oppose it. With relatively low levels of advertising spending, voter opinion on the ballot initiative has remained steady since the last USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times Poll conducted in September, when 67 percent of voters supported Proposition 36, and 18 percent opposed it.

The USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times Poll was conducted by Democratic polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner and Republican polling firm American Viewpoint. The full sample of 1,504 registered voters has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.9 percentage points.

Follow all election news coverage at Election 2012, a resource for journalists and others interested in politics created by USC Media Relations.

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