Defeat is likely for both death penalty measures on California ballot, poll finds

There are more voters in favor of a ballot measure that would repeal the death penalty in California than one that attempts to speed up executions, but neither proposition has attracted the majority of votes it needs to pass come Tuesday, a new poll finds.

Partly, it’s because some voters seemed confused about what each measure promises, pollsters and strategists said. Mainly, it’s because voters remain strongly divided on the issue of capital punishment, with a strong core of beliefs driving their decisions.

National debate over criminal justice reform and racial disparity in sentencing has not swayed those attitudes, they said, as it has with other crime and punishment measures on the ballot. 

“The death penalty is much more controversial, in a sense,” said pollster Anna Greenberg of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, the Democratic half of the bipartisan team of polling firms that conducted the latest USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll. “People have strong religious or moral opposition on both sides of the issue. They have core values.”

Proposition 62, which would replace capital punishment with life in prison without parole, received 44% support and 45% opposition among the 1,382 likely voters polled in October across the state through telephone interviews. Ten percent said they did not know how they would vote or refused to answer.

The more clearly written measure of the two, pollsters said, it garnered a predictable demographic on both sides: 59% of Democratic voters were in support and 65% of Republican voters were in opposition.

The results also reflected national trends, which show public support for the death penalty has declined, though an almost even split of voters still favor the punishment. The latest Pew Research survey, released in September, found 49% of Americans favored the death penalty, the lowest in more than four decades.

More confusing to interpret, pollsters said, were the results of Proposition 66, which seeks to speed up the death penalty system through changes and limits on how and how often death row inmates can challenge their convictions and sentences.

Thirty-five percent of voters said they would support Proposition 66, 42% said they would oppose it, and 21% said they did not know how they would vote or refused to answer.

But only 45% of Democratic voters opposed the measure, while 31% said they would support it. Of Republican voters, 40% were in favor and 36% were against.

Interviews with poll participants illustrated the opposing values among California voters.

Alan Cheah, 67, a retired technology specialist in the Central Valley, said he strongly opposed the death penalty on moral grounds.

“A lot of people have been wrongly put to death,” he said. “The whole justice system is skewed toward disadvantaged people and people of color, and a lot of them have been accused of murder or wrongdoing but have been acquitted – some have not been acquitted in time.”

To Steven Lang, a 56-year-old self-described fine artist, it’s a sensitive, personal issue. His sister was killed in 1994. The killer was not sentenced to death. 

“This guy has robbed me of memories of my sister,” Lang said. “You can’t take life and whitewash it in gray. Every life has a value, and I believe people who take that life, lose theirs.”

The ballot box guide to California's propositions »

Yet even as the two death penalty propositions “are trying to achieve competing aims, opponents of one don’t necessarily support the other, mostly due to confusion about 66,” said pollster Ben Winston of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research.

Voters who supported repealing the death penalty and opposed the competing measure were 21% of the electorate, a mostly Democratic group which also supported Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

Will ending the death penalty save California more money than speeding up executions? »

Voters who opposed repealing the death penalty and favored the measure intended to speed up the process formed 18% of the electorate, a group that leaned Republican and toward Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.

Another 15% of voters, mostly younger Democrats and Clinton supporters, said they would give their “Yes” vote to both propositions, while 21% of the electorate said they would oppose both measures.

The survey was conducted for USC Dornsife and the Los Angeles Times by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research and American Viewpoint.

jazmine.ulloa@latimes.com

@jazmineulloa

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