Do Americans still support the death penalty?

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The death chamber and the steel bars of the viewing room are seen at the state penitentiary in Huntsville, Texas, U.S. on September 29, 2010.  Courtesy Jenevieve Robbins/Texas Dept of Criminal Justice/Handout via REUTERS

The death chamber and the steel bars of the viewing room are seen at the state penitentiary in Huntsville, Texas, U.S. on September 29, 2010. Courtesy Jenevieve Robbins/Texas Dept of Criminal Justice/Handout via REUTERS

The national debate over capital punishment will be back in the spotlight on Election Day, when voters in three states will decide if they support or reject the death penalty.

The four ballot initiatives on the death penalty this year — one apiece in Nebraska and Oklahoma, and two separate measures in California — are the most we’ve ever seen in a single election, said Robert Dunham, the executive director for the Death Penalty Information Center.

While the referendum votes are embroiled in state politics, Dunham said the nation is in the “midst of a major political climate change on views about the death penalty.”

“The clear trend is away from the death penalty,” Dunham added.

Four decades of public opinion polls support Dunham.

Half the country favors use of the death penalty, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey. But public support is at its lowest point since the Supreme Court suspended the death penalty about four decades ago, said Jocelyn Kiley, an associate director for research at Pew Research Center.

“It’s a steady decline,” Kiley said. “It’s not influenced by the politics of an election year.”

Since the Supreme Court revived capital punishment in 1976, 1,439 people have been executed in the United States. But those deaths tapered from a high of 98 in 1999 to 17 so far this year, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. The late 1990s also marked the height of public support for capital punishment, polls show.

Today, the death penalty is illegal in 19 states, including the District of Columbia. But capital punishment remains politically polarizing, “with Democrats clearly on one side of the issue and Republicans clearly on the other side,” Kiley said.

This election may reinforce that idea in California, Nebraska and Oklahoma.

California voters will see two ballot initiatives about the death penalty. If passed, Proposition 62 would replace capital punishment with a life sentence and no chance of parole. If the measure passes, the U.S. would lose a significant segment of its 2,900 death row inmates, a quarter of whom sit in California.

At the same time, Proposition 66 would speed up the costly appeals that a death sentence triggers. If both measures receive a majority of “yes” votes, the proposition with the most votes would stand, and the measure with fewer votes would lose, Dunham said.

“The clear trend is away from the death penalty.”

In an attempt to ban the death penalty in Nebraska, state legislators overrode Republican Governor Pete Ricketts’ veto. But death penalty advocates collected more than 143,000 signatures in response, enough to bring Referendum 426 to a vote. If voters retain the measure, it would replace the state’s use of the death penalty with life imprisonment.

In Oklahoma, voters will decide if the state constitution should be amended to protect the death penalty. A yes vote on Question 776 would support changing the state’s bill of rights. The vote comes after Oklahoma suspended the use of lethal injections earlier this year following a series of botched executions in 2014 and 2015.

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