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Thursday, September 27, 2007

New Polling Data on Texas Death Penalty

Gardner Selby, a political columnist for the Austin American-Statesman, wrote an article last week that contained new polling data on the views of Texas Democrats and independent voters on the death penalty. The August poll of 350 Democratic-leaning and 150 independent voters was taken by Wilson Research Strategies. The poll shows that the risk of executing innocent people is a major concern. 79 percent said they're concerned about the possibility of innocent people being executed; 45 percent are very concerned. Forty-four percent of voters prefer life without parole as the punishment for people convicted of capital murder, with 30 percent sticking with the death penalty and 14 percent preferring life in prison with a chance of parole.

The polling data does not come as a surprise to any of us who have been working on the death penalty issue. We have known for a long time that we were making progress in educating the public on the problems in the Texas death penalty system. Our experience has shown us that support for a moratorium is overwhelming among grassroots Democrats in Texas. In 2004, a group of us convinced the Texas Democratic Party to support a moratorium on executions in the party platform.

TMN's Scott Cobb was a member of the platform writing committee that year and wrote the section on capital punishment in the platform. Last summer, he and Hooman Hedayati met with the Democratic nominee for governor of Texas, Chris Bell, and convinced him to support a moratorium. Unfortunately, Bell never went public with his support for a moratorium. If he had, then he might have won more votes in the general election that year, which had four major candidates. Bell needed to identify himself strongly with the core values of the Democratic Party in order to bring out the base and win the election. By publicly endorsing a moratorium, as well as other issues that Democrats care about, such as universal health care, Bell might have had a chance to defeat Perry, given four major candidates. But Bell limited his public comments to support for an Innocence Commission. His comments on health care were also not strong enough to increase turnout for him in November. Had he come out strongly for both a moratorium and universal health coverage, then he might have made enough of an impression among Democratic voters that they would have turned out in large numbers for him. That could have made a difference in last year's four candidate race, five counting the Libertarian candidate.

Candidates who articulate support for a moratorium are likely to find support from a large number of potential voters, at least from voters who identify themselves as Democratic or independent.

From the Statesman article:

The poll tested seven questions related to the death penalty in Texas, showing that Democrats and independents have misgivings about how Texas applies the punishment.

Less than half the polled voters favor abolishing the death penalty. But 79 percent said they're concerned about the possibility of innocent people being executed; 45 percent are very concerned.

Granted, the poll didn't include Republicans, effectively overlooking the party whose candidates have won every statewide office since 1998.

Is it still meaningful that four in five Democrats and independents have misgivings?

My sense: It'll take Friedman stumping before anyone knows. It's that hard in tough-on-crime Texas to envision another candidate questioning the death penalty, though Bell would support a moratorium while cases are reviewed.

The polled voters appear uncertain what to do about the death sentence, which has been carried out more than 400 times in Texas since 1982.

Very few of the voters rate abolishing the penalty as a vital issue. Forty-four percent of voters prefer life without parole as the punishment for people convicted of capital murder, with 30 percent sticking with the death penalty and 14 percent preferring life in prison with a chance of parole.

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