Capitol Alert

Californians sharply divided on death penalty ahead of historic vote

Competing ballot measures that would bring historic changes to California’s fractured death penalty system are both on the cusp of passing in Tuesday’s election.

A new survey of likely voters from the Field Poll and UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies found a slight majority for Proposition 62, which would repeal capital punishment in California after nearly four decades. It leads 51 percent to 45 percent, with the remainder still undecided.

But support has also soared in recent weeks for a rival initiative that aims to resume executions after more than 10 years and speed up an appeals process for death sentences that can take decades. Forty-eight percent of likely voters are inclined to vote yes on Proposition 66, according to the poll, up 13 percentage points from September. Another 42 percent are opposed, while 10 percent have not made up their minds, down sharply from 42 percent in the last survey.

Nearly a quarter of poll respondents indicated they would support Proposition 62 and Proposition 66, which present contradictory fixes for a death penalty system that both campaigns characterize as broken. If both measures pass, whichever has a higher number of votes will become law.

“It’s like they don’t even care whether the death penalty itself is the issue,” said Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll. “They just want to change the status quo from what it is right now.”

The poll also showed strong majorities for seven other ballot measures: Proposition 52, a hospital fee to fund Medi-Cal health services; Proposition 55, extending a tax on wealthy Californians to pay for schools; Proposition 56, which would raise the cigarette tax by $2 a pack; Proposition 57, an overhaul of state prison parole rules; Proposition 58, to make it easier to establish bilingual education programs; Proposition 63, implementing new background checks for ammunition purchases and other new gun regulations; and Proposition 64, to legalize marijuana for recreational use.

But Proposition 61, which would cap how much the state can pay for prescription drugs at the price paid by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, may be in trouble. Likely voters are divided – 47 percent supporting and 47 percent opposed – over the measure that has drawn opposition via heavy TV advertising and more than $100 million in spending from pharmaceutical companies.

Critics of capital punishment are seeking to abolish the practice in California for the second time in four years. Their last effort, a 2012 ballot measure, narrowly failed, 48 percent in favor to 52 percent against.

The campaign messages for Proposition 62, which would replace the death penalty with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, again assert that the state has “wasted” billions of dollars on capital trials, appeals and housing for nearly 750 inmates currently on death row while carrying out just 13 executions, none since 2006.

Opponents contend that the process has only fallen apart because of endless legal challenges by those very same critics. They have urged voters to maintain the death penalty for the “worst of the worst” murderers and to pass Proposition 66, which would instruct the state to hire more lawyers to handle capital cases and to implement strict timelines for inmates’ appeals.

DiCamillo noted that there are sharp divisions over Proposition 62 between Democrats, liberals, young people, coastal residents and college-educated voters – who largely support the repeal measure – and Republicans, conservatives, older people, inland residents and voters with a high school education or less, who do not.

But those distinctions are less pronounced for Proposition 66. Democrats, liberals and voters under the age of 40 are more likely to express support for both initiatives.

That may be due to lingering confusion over the complex changes proposed in Proposition 66, DiCamillo said, or a protest against the current system, where executions have ground to a halt for more than a decade because of a lawsuit brought against California’s lethal drug cocktail.

The latter scenario could be trouble for proponents of abolishing the death penalty, he added. If the demographic groups boosting Proposition 62 are “pushing 66 over the top, they’re not repealing the death penalty, they’re doing the reverse.”

Among the quarter of poll respondents who had already cast their ballot when the poll was taken, however, Proposition 62 held a strong lead: 57 percent said they had voted for the measure, while only 45 percent had voted for Proposition 66.

Alexei Koseff: 916-321-5236, @akoseff

Related stories from Sacramento Bee