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Polls and the Importance of Question Wording

In mid-August, Bill and I both noted a poll by the Institute for Government Studies at Berkeley on the competing death penalty propositions.  That poll found the repeal proposition losing by 45-55 and the reform proposition winning by a landslide 76-24.  See also the IGS press release.

Last week, I noted a SurveyUSA poll showing the repeal proposition "trails by 16 points today and is headed for defeat."  Also noted the same day was a USC/LA Times/SurveyMonkey poll showing Prop. 62 down by 11%.  Neither of these polls asked about the reform measure, Prop. 66.

Now we have a poll done by Field and IGS, the same organization as the first poll above, that has a dramatically different result.  This one shows repeal at 48% yes, 37% no, and 15% undecided, while the reform measure is at 35% yes, 23% no, and 42% undecided.

As Seinfeld would say, what's up with that?  Has there been a dramatic shift in public opinion since the first IGS poll?  Not likely, given the essentially consistent results on 62 in the other two recent polls.

When I see dramatic differences like this in polls, the first thing I suspect is wording of the questions.
The IGS poll a month ago describe each proposition in brief and simple terms:

A proposed ballot measure would repeal the death penalty and replace it with a sentence of life in prison without parole.  Would you favor or oppose such a measure?
A proposed ballot measure would streamline procedures in death-penalty cases to speed up resolution of the cases.  Would you favor or oppose such a measure?
The new Field Poll just gives the official "ballot labels":

PROPOSITION 62: DEATH PENALTY. INITIATIVE STATUTE. Repeals death penalty and replaces it with life imprisonment without possibility of parole. Applies retroactively to existing death sentences. Increases the portion of life inmates' wages that may be applied to victim restitution. Fiscal Impact: Net ongoing reduction in state and county criminal justice costs of around $150 million annually within a few years, although the impact could vary by tens of millions of dollars depending on various factors.
PROPOSITION 66: DEATH PENALTY. PROCEDURES, INITIATIVE STATUTE.  Changes procedures governing state court challenges to death sentences. Designates superior court for initial petitions and limits successive petitions. Requires appointed attorneys who take noncapital appeals to accept death penalty appeals. Exempts prison officials from existing regulation process for developing execution methods. Fiscal Impact: Unknown ongoing impact on state court cases for processing legal challenges to death sentences. Potential prison savings in the tens of millions of dollars annually.
It is easy to see why Field got such a large "undecided" with Prop. 66.  The official label says nothing about streamlining or speeding up.

Why does Prop. 62 do so much better in the Field Poll than the IGS poll?  The first line of the official label is the same as the IGS question.  The respondents in the Field Poll received the dubious and disputed $150M savings number handed to them as if it were fact, and unfortunately the voters will also.

Clearly, then, the forces of justice must give the voters information that is not in the ballot labels.  The voters' guide does include pro and con arguments, and they will help clarify the issues for the voters who read them.  But additional efforts to inform voters of the true nature of the choice before them are also needed.


Is there a link where people may contribute to defeat Prop 62 and/or enact Prop 66?

Click on "Californians for Death Penalty Reform & Savings" under "Links" in the gray column in the center of this blog.

From that page, click on "Donate."

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