Even as executions nationwide are at a 25-year low and public support for capital punishment is at a 30-year low, voters in three states on Tuesday chose measures that would preserve and strengthen the death penalty.
California voters were asked to choose between two competing measures. Proposition 62, which would have repealed the death penalty and made life without parole the maximum sentence in the state, got 46.1 percent of the vote — not enough to become law.
California has more inmates on death row than any other state but hasn’t executed anyone since 2006. If passed, Prop 62 would have retroactively downgraded the existing death sentences of all 750 death row inmates.
Californians instead voted in favor of Proposition 66, a measure that promises to “mend not end the death penalty” by speeding up the sentencing appeals process by making it easier for death row inmates to get lawyers. Prop 66 narrowly passed the 50 percent threshold by just 0.9 percentage points.
After an intraparty fight between their governor and state legislators over capital punishment, Nebraskans overwhelmingly voted to keep the death penalty on the books.
Lawmakers voted to repeal capital punishment last year, citing ethical and pragmatic reasons, such as the high cost of housing death row inmates. Gov. Pete Ricketts vetoed their repeal, and then lawmakers overrode his veto.
Ricketts moved the dispute onto Nebraska’s ballot with Referendum 426 and poured a ton of his own money — $300,000 — into the pro–death penalty campaign. The referendum asked voters whether to uphold the ban on the death penalty or to repeal the law banning the death penalty.
Two-thirds of Nebraskans voted for the latter.
There were some scattered reports on Election Day of voters experiencing confusion with the language on the ballot. Some lawmakers and Nebraska’s secretary of state had pushed to simplify the wording, but in the end the original text was used.
Oklahomans voted to enshrine the death penalty in the state’s constitution, with 66 percent voting yes on State Question 776. The measure adds an amendment safeguarding Oklahoma’s right to execute people and gives lawmakers more power to determine execution methods. Flexibility in methods is an important piece to maintaining the death penalty in the state amid rising scrutiny over lethal injection protocol. Three botched executions in 2014 using new drugs left death row inmates gasping for air and writhing on the gurney. Oklahoma executes more people per capita than any other state, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.