Life-and-death decision

Backers of Prop 34 target the still-high number of undecided voters

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Will California become the 18th US state to abolish capital punishment?
PHOTO BY AP IMAGES

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Proposition 34, the initiative to end the death penalty in California, is trailing in the polls, but proponents are focusing on a surprisingly large voting block that could still put it over the top: undecided voters.

"Anything can happen on Election Day," said Natasha Minsker, campaign manager for Yes on 34. "I think what this election comes down to is who's able to reach the undecided voter."

The Los Angeles Times reports the race is 38-51 against the measure, while the Field Poll survey has it at 42-45 against. Both polls report that 11-13 percent of voters were undecided, and a more recent poll conducted by SurveyUSA shows the undecided vote may have grown to 20 percent.

Those large numbers, with less than two weeks until the election, raise an interesting and troubling question: on a decision as serious as whether we allow the state to kill someone in our name — a practice that is as costly to state finances as it may be to our very souls — why have so many voters failed to form an opinion?

REACHING VOTERS

Leading the charge to win over these ambivalent voters is a coalition of justice organizations, supported by prominent individuals and groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Amnesty International.

The campaign has raised more than $6 million in less than a year, outspending the opposition 35-to-1. Minsker told us the campaign is focusing hard on undecided minority voters, devoting most of its resources to an area they believe will help them win.

"We have more of a focus on young Latino, Asian, and African American voters, specifically in LA County," she said. "These are voters who, once they hear about the facts of the proposition, they vote for it."

Prop. 34 would replace California's death penalty with a maximum sentence of life in prison with no chance of parole. The proposition would also make convicted felons work to pay restitution to their victims' families.

The Field Poll reports that of all the regions surveyed, Los Angeles County contains the highest percentage of undecided voters, at 17 percent. Once voters learn that executions don't prevent murders (numerous studies show it doesn't act as a deterrent to crime) or save money (life-in-prison is cheaper than housing someone on Death Row and hearing legal appeals), support for capital punishment falls.

The Field Poll reports that 15 percent of voters aged18-39 are undecided, while minority voters (Latino, Asian and African American) contain even higher rates of undecided voters, ranging from 16-19 percent, higher than undecided white voters, at 11 percent.

Unlike on many liberal-leaning campaigns, this one also has strong support from the Catholic Church.

"The energy the Catholic community has brought to the initiative has been fantastic," Minsker said. "It is certainly one of the few issues to bring together the ACLU and the Catholic Church, but it's just wonderful to see."

But in order for the proposition to pass, undecided voters must decide soon.

Field Poll Director Mark Dicamillo said that at this stage in the contest, the team that is leading in the polls usually wins.

"In our experience, with [two] weeks left, undecided voters usually vote no, if they haven't figured out where they stand yet," he said.

But Jeanne Woodford, executive director of Death Penalty Focus, a nonprofit group dedicated to educating the public about capital punishment, says these undecided voters are taking their time to get the facts straight before they decide.

"I think that [undecided voters] are very thoughtful voters who are not going to vote on this issue from a moral perspective," she said. "Those are voters who are going to want to know the facts."

DECIDING ISSUES

With the election just around the corner, why are so many "thoughtful voters" still undecided about ending the death penalty?

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