WASHINGTON -- There has been a 60 percent drop in executions in America since 2000, and, in tandem with this decline, the death penalty appears to be steadily losing popularity among voters who say they are more concerned with budget issues and the deficit than with executing the nation's murderers. According to a national poll of 1,500 registered voters conducted by Lake Research Partners, 61 percent of Americans surveyed said they would prefer alternative punishments for murder, such as life without parole, over the death penalty.
After being informed of the cost of carrying out executions and recent statistics on exoneration, 65 percent of voters polled said they would rather replace the death penalty with an alternative punishment and use the saved money for other crime-prevention measures instead. The unfairness with which the death penalty is sentenced, the high costs of executions, the amount of innocent people who are wrongly executed and the emotional impact of the death penalty on victims' families proved to be the most important factors influencing voters' thinking on the death penalty. Only a small percentage of those polled, mainly Catholic and Latino voters, reported a strong moral or religious opposition to capital punishment.
Celinda Lake, president and founder of Lake Research Partners, said what she found most interesting about the poll was the fact that voters' opinions seemed to shift away from support of the death penalty when presented with alternative punishments and statistics.
"Conventional wisdom, of course, says a large majority of Americans unequivocally support the death penalty, and we find that conventional wisdom is not correct," she said in a conference call Tuesday. "This is, particularly in these times, a very convincing perspective for a large education effort about the alternatives available and what the trade-offs are of these public policy choices."
The results of the poll were fairly consistent across the country: support for the death penalty was lowest in the Northeast, where only 29 percent of voters agreed with the practice, but it was also fairly low (32 percent) in the South, where the majority of executions are currently carried out. Support for the death penalty is highest in the West, where 35 percent of people would vote to uphold the policy, and in the Midwest.
In terms of how the issue might influence a person's vote, a surprising 38 percent of voters polled in states that currently have capital punishment said it would not affect their support for a particular candidate if he or she supported a repeal of the death penalty. Another 24 percent of voters said they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who wanted to repeal the death penalty, and 38 percent said they would be less likely to support that candidate.
Voters also rated the death penalty as the lowest budget priority under roads, police forces, the public health system, and public schools.
Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said the poll shows that the American public is ready for a serious conversation about the death penalty.
"For decades, politicians have equated being tough on crime with support for the death penalty, but this research suggests voters want their elected officials to be smart on crime, use tax dollars wisely, and fund the services they care about the most," he said. "Capital punishment is not a high priority for voters and is not the 'third rail' of politics."