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Death Penalty Poll Up North

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Among the countries whose legal system is based on English law, only the United States and a few Caribbean countries retain the death penalty.  Opponents are fond of saying that the other countries have rejected the death penalty.  Yet when you ask the people instead of the governments of those other countries, you get a very different picture.  A poll by the Toronto Star and Angus Reid indicates that opinion north of the border is not much different from ours. Richard Brennan has this story in the Star.  Angus Reid's summary is here and full report is here.

As with U.S. polls, responses vary greatly with the wording of the question.  The most straightforward question asks the actual legislative issue:  "As you may know, Canada eliminated the death penalty for murder in July 1976. All things considered, would you support or oppose reinstating the death penalty for murder in Canada?"  The ayes swamp the nays, a bit under 2-to-1:  61% yes, 34% no, 5% not sure.

On a somewhat more general question, 8% say the death penalty is "always appropriate," 63% say sometimes, 23% say never, and 5% are not sure.  The question does not specify that it is asking about punishment for murder, but presumably nearly all respondents would understand that.  Comparing this question with the previous one, it appears that about 11% of people who think the death penalty is sometimes appropriate nonetheless oppose reinstatement, probably persuaded by practical arguments of cost or the possibility of executing an innocent person.

On the badly worded question that implies a single punishment choice for all murders, half of Canadians choose life in prison, as do about half of the people of the United States.  "All things considered, which of these two approaches would you prefer as a punishment for convicted murderers in Canada?"  LWOP: 50%; death 38%; not sure 12%.  (See my prior criticisms of this question here and here.) 

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I sent the below to 10 executives of Angus Reid Polling:

In a message dated 2/9/2012 10:29:57 A.M. Central Standard Time, Sharpjfa@aol.com writes:

To: Angus Reid

From: Dudley Sharp

There has been consistent misinterpretation of polling results in the life without parole vs death penalty category for years.

Here is the error: You write:

"When asked to select between two possible courses of action to deal with convicted murderers in Canada, half of respondents (50%) prefer life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, while two-in-five (38%) favour the death penalty."

"Canadians are unique in the sense that they back the return of the death penalty, but the level of support for this change drops considerably when paired against the notion of life imprisonment without parole."

Untrue.

There is no evidence that this represents a drop in the 61% support for reinstatement or the 71% support for the death penalty.

The LWOP support over the death penalty is a preference or contrast poll, not an exclusion poll.

For example 50% prefer chocolate ice cream and 38% prefer vanilla, (12% are unsure) but that doesn't change the fact that 99% like both and want to retain (or reintroduce) both.

Hardly "unique". However, the AR interpretation is uniquely wrong.

When given the choice between LWOP and death, Canadians, by 50% to 38%, would prefer LWOP over death, while 71% still support the death penalty and 61% still support its re introduction. (1)

The preference of LWOP over death, does not change the results of the other two polls, in any way.

Gallup and others make the same huge and, seemingly, obvious mistake in interpretation of that preference poll, as AR does.

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