As Election Day draws closer, state-level ballot initiatives are receiving increased scrutiny, ranging from measures to legalize marijuana in Colorado, Washington, and Oregon, to a version of the DREAM Act in Maryland. California voters are at the center of one particularly heated debate: on November 6, they will have the opportunity to decide whether the death penalty should be abolished in their state, after being restored three decades ago.
The initiative in question, Proposition 34, would replace California’s death penalty with life in prison without parole. It would also establish a $100 million fund to investigate rape and murder cases, and require inmates to work and pay restitution to victims or their families.
Overall, Californians are substantially more likely than the general public to favor life in prison with no chance of parole over the death penalty for persons convicted of murder. Nearly 6-in-10 (58%) Californians say they prefer life in prison with no chance of parole, while around one-third (35%) choose the death penalty. Americans, by contrast, are nearly evenly divided: 47% favor life in prison with no chance of parole, while 46% prefer the death penalty.
In a departure from campaigns over the death penalty in the past, supporters of Prop 34 have centered their arguments on capital punishment’s significant financial implications. A frequently-cited study claims that getting rid of the death penalty would save the cash-strapped state more than $100 million every year. Given that 6-in-10 (60%) Americans agree that the death penalty is morally acceptable, including majorities of white evangelical Protestants (75%), white mainline Protestants (69%) and white Catholics (60%) and black Protestants (51%) economic arguments may hold more sway with voters than moral ones.
If the ballot initiative passes, California will become the 18th state (plus the District of Columbia) to abolish the death penalty. In the last two weeks before the election, the Prop. 34 Campaign is spending more than $2 million on ads which argue, not that the death penalty is immoral, but that capital punishment wastes taxpayer dollars in a tough economy.