You’d think Proposition 62, a referendum to abolish California’s death penalty and replace it with life without parole, including for the 749 occupants of death row, would win easily on Nov. 8, writes Washington Post editorial writer Charles Lane. Democrats dominate this state; their 2016 platform advocated an end to capital punishment. Former president Jimmy Carter, left-populist icon Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the state’s major labor unions and 38 newspaper editorial boards are urging a “yes” vote. California’s death row costs millions to maintain but the state has executed only 13 people since restoring capital punishment in 1978, mainly due to lengthy court appeals, including successful challenges to its lethal injection method.
Yet Prop 62’s prospects are uncertain. Of five statewide polls since Sept. 1, only one, a Field Poll, showed Prop 62 ahead, 48 percent to 37 percent. Measures that poll below 50 percent tend not to win, even if they are leading, says Field’s Mark DiCamillo. Meanwhile, four other polls showed “no” up by an average of 50 to 37. The main lesson has to do with public opinion about the death penalty, which is much more nuanced than media coverage generally reflects. Long-term Gallup trends suggest that the very high support for the death penalty of the mid-1990s (80 percent one year) was an anomaly, probably a reaction to the soaring violent crime rates of the time. A rough summary of most Americans’ views of the death penalty might be: “Yes, though it depends.” It depends on what’s going on in society. It depends on the specific crime. It depends on whether you’re asking me in the abstract, as a juror, or as a voter.