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Close vote in California indicates shift away from capital punishment

California voters narrowly rejected Proposition 34, a ballot measure to replace the death penalty with a sentence of life without parole. Although a majority of voters chose to retain the death penalty, the fact that close to half the voters supported repeal represents a dramatic shift away from capital punishment.

With over 700 people on death row, California has one of the largest death penalty systems in the country.  However, like Washington, California has carried out very few executions in the past four decades since the death penalty was reinstated.  The SAFE California campaign raised public awareness about the enormous waste of the state’s death penalty system and how the death penalty is far more expensive than lifetime incarceration.  The campaign also utilized effective messengers – including innocent people exonerated from death row, district attorneys, and former death penalty champions who became compelling spokespeople for ending the death penalty.

Although Prop 34 lost, there are many ways that we can draw encouragement from California’s campaign as we continue our work in Washington. Here are three key lessons:

There is growing public support for ending the death penalty.  The recent returns on Proposition 34 indicate that less than 53% of voters in California are in favor of keeping the death penalty, which reflects a long-term trend of eroding public support for capital punishment. By contrast, the 1978 ballot initiative that enacted the state’s death penalty statute passed with the support of 71% of the voters. In 1986, California Chief Justice Rose Bird was removed from office by 67% of voters because she was perceived as blocking the death penalty. Nationally, support for the death penalty in the Gallup Poll has dropped from 80% in 1994 to only 61% most recently. Moreover, when respondents are given alternatives such as life without parole, support for the death penalty falls below 50%.

The facts are on our side.  The polling on Prop 34 showed that support for the measure increased as people learned the facts about the death penalty.  A poll conducted right before Election Day found that a majority of voters believed that the death penalty is more expensive than life behind bars. That perception increased by 12 percentage points over the last year, as SAFE California made it a central message of the campaign. 

Momentum on the West Coast is turning against the death penalty. In November 2011, the Governor of Oregon announced a moratorium on executions in his state, decrying the death penalty system as “compromised and inequitable.”  Opposition to the death penalty is growing in strength in California and Washington. With your help, we will keep building the momentum for ending the death penalty so that we will create a death-penalty-free zone that extends from San Diego to the San Juans.

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