Without Robust Grassroots Support, a Death Penalty Repeal May Be a Tough Sell in 2020

Following Gov. Gavin Newsom’s moratorium on capital punishment via executive fiat in March, will California voters end the death penalty in 2020?

New research from the National Institute on Money in Politics indicates that, absent a robust grassroots anti-death penalty effort, it may be a tough sell. That’s owing to the power, influence and infrastructure of unions such as the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA), whose small-donor efforts in 2016 helped turn the public opinion tables on a capital punishment proposition twofer on that ballot that year.

Proposition 62 would have ended the death penalty outright, while pro-death penalty Proposition 66 sought to limit appeals in capital cases.

The institute’s research found that even as the state was trending away from support for the death penalty, pro-death penalty 62/66-specific committees outspent opponents’ committees by $13.5 million to $9.7 million in 2016.

That year, “corrections officers represented the overwhelming majority of small donors rallying behind the death penalty,” reports the institute’s online research portal, followthemoney.org, adding that 35 “public sector unions collectively gave $3.3 million to the pro-death penalty effort. ... Almost almost half ($1.6 million) of the union total came from contributions from CCPOA and the Peace Officers Research Association of California (PORAC).” Twenty-eight-thousand CCPOA members contributed $287 each to 62/66-specific committees.

Small-donor anti-death penalty contributions were not nearly so robust, as the institute reports that “more than four-fifths of the anti-death-penalty total ($7.9 million) came from just 35 donors that gave $50,000 or more."

Contributions from opponents were made by George Soros’s Open Society Policy Center ($1 million), Laurene Powell Jobs’s Emerson Collective ($600,000), “and more than $450,000 from the Northern California Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.”

The report further noted that Stanford University professor Nick McKeown gave $1.5 million, “a 91 percent share of the total from education donors,” while Netflix co-founder and CEO Reed Hastings contributed $1 million of $1.2 million that came from the TV and film industry. Lastly, it found that five people (including Tom Steyer) “accounted for more than 80 percent of $1.1 million from securities and investment donors.”

Small-donor contributions from 1,700 opponents totaled $377,000, reported the institute as it recounted the run-up to the 2016 election. That year, opponents contributed an average of $4,750 to the committees; proponents of the death penalty contributed an average of $470.

On Sept. 21, 2016, the Sacramento Bee reported that polling to date indicated that a plurality of voters supported Prop. 62, while only a third of voters supported Prop. 66.

It cited a joint study from the Field Poll and the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley, that "found Proposition 62 ahead 48 to 37 percent, with 15 percent of likely voters undecided. Meanwhile, barely a third (35 percent) support Proposition 66, a competing initiative aimed at expediting the death-penalty process. With 42 percent undecided, it appears far less familiar to voters. Twenty-three percent are opposed.”

Then came a CCPOA-led advertising blitz that raised public awareness of Proposition 66. “In the end, 53 percent of voters rejected Proposition 62 and 51 percent OK’d Proposition 66,” notes the institute.

In making his announcement this spring, Newsom highlighted that the death penalty discriminates against minorities and poor people as he called the practice “ineffective, irreversible and immoral.”

He pledged to give a reprieve to the 737 inmates currently on death row in California, close the death chamber at San Quentin (it was dismantled soon after his announcement), and end a years-long debate over the state’s execution protocols.

Most of the 737 condemned in California are men held in one of three death row tiers at San Quentin. Women on death row are incarcerated at a facility in Chowchilla. The last execution in California took place 13 years ago.

As Newsom was making his announcement, Assemblyman Marc Levine (D-Marin) introduced a proposed constitutional amendment on the 2020 ballot that would ban the death penalty. Opponents to Newsom’s moratorium have already ramped up the grassroots activism in light of the renewed push to end capital punishment in the state.

Families of crime victims and local district attorneys have embarked on a “Victims of Murder Justice Tour” which today is in Riverside. In April NBC Los Angeles reported that the organization (founded by the Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer) would take the tour to each of the 80 Assembly and 40 Senate districts in the state.

Death Penalty Focus (DPF), a California nonprofit devoted to ending capital punishment in the state through public education and grassroots organizing, was unsurprisingly supportive of Newsom’s March move and says it might spur grassroots activism at the local level, should Levine’s measure wind up on the ballot in 2020.

“As it stands right now, it's a bit premature to speculate about an initiative in 2020,” says David Crawford, senior advocacy director at DPF, “although the moratorium does raise questions about the movement's endgame and whether the moment is right.”

DPF will continue to prioritize public education, fostering new alliances, lifting up voices of the wrongfully convicted and local advocacy efforts, he said. All of which expands the base from which to fundraise.

“We rely on small contributions from a broad base of donors to carry out this type work, along with some funding from foundations and what nonprofits refer to as ‘major gifts,’” Crawford explained. “As a nonprofit advocacy organization, gifts of any amount really do make a difference for us.”

Meanwhile, DPF noted, it looks like polling favors opponents of capital punishment—by large margins. Even as district attorneys and victims’ families have accused Newsom of thwarting the 2016 will of the voters, recent surveys suggest that Californians favor life-without-parole over execution in first-degree murder cases, by a two-to-one ratio.

A Public Policy Institute of California poll conducted two weeks after Newsom’s announcement found that 62 percent of voters “chose life in prison over the death penalty,” reported DPF. “The survey found that only 31 percent of adults—38 percent of whom are likely voters—favored the death penalty.”

It remains to be seen whether the polling holds, or whether it will matter.

“If a future campaign were to take place,” Crawford says, “it would need to build on the successful aspects of the last campaign's fundraising strategy, while finding additional ways to raise money. Public figures play a big role in spreading the word about the issues at the heart of a campaign, and perhaps the governor’s bold stance might facilitate additional ‘small-donor’ contributions.”


  1. “corrections officers represented the overwhelming majority of small donors rallying behind the death penalty”
    Gotta keep them jobs, even if it means state sanctioned murder.

  2. Death penalty? What Death penalty? If your on death row in California your more likely to be eaten by monitor lizards and the bad guys know it.

  3. Billions of words and dollars spent on this issue the past 50 years. As a social issue it a mouse that roars. A useless diversion.

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