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Archives: Death penalty faces potent challenge in the U.S.

Originally published in November 2012
Simon Nguyen

The newly released Field Poll found support for Proposition 34 – California’s initiative to end the death penalty – at 45 percent compared to 38 percent for the opposition among likely voters.  If voters in California approve the measure on November 6, it could signal the end of this practice not just in the state but also in the entire U.S.

Historically, California has been the bell-weather state for major social issues. Despite being a liberal-leaning state, California’s state electorate includes a good share of Democrats, Republicans and independents. Any change in social attitude that is accepted in the Golden State will have a good chance to be realized in the rest of the country. The opposite is also true.

Case in point, the state approved a measure that bans same-sex marriage in 2008. Since then, national momentum for gay marriage has effectively been halted. In the same way, the outcome of Proposition 34 will either set the course for a national movement to abolish the death penalty or thwart such a movement.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, only 17 states do not have the death penalty. If the measure passes, California would be one of very few Western states to abolish capital punishment. Due to the state’s influence in the West, it is conceivable that states with a similar electorate like Oregon and Washington would follow suit and include similar measures in their next elections. There could be a cascading effect.

What have been the reasons behind the unexpectedly support for California’s death penalty repeal?

Proposition 34 has benefited greatly from its anonymity. Most of the attention has been on Proposition 30, which raises taxes on the top income earners, and Proposition 32 – a measure that bans labor unions from using payroll-deduction funds to finance political activities. The difficult financial situation California is in may have also changed some mind regarding the issue, as the cost to carry out capital punishment is generally more expensive than other viable options.

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