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On Death Penalty Measure, Voters Like the Worst Part

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Opinion: On Death Penalty Measure, Voters Like the Worst Party

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All death penalty prisoners are housed at San Quentin.

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California voters, often without knowing what they are doing, often vote to make the state's budget problems worse.

The latest example of this dynamic arrives -- as so many budget-worsening measures do -- via a ballot initiative that would seem to have little to do with the budget. Prop 34 is the November statewide initiative to end the death penalty in California and replace it with life imprisonment.

Since California voters tend to support the death penalty, Prop 34 is a tough sell. A new USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll shows that the initiative is in trouble, with only 38 percent yes support to 51 percent saying they intend to vote no.

But the sponsors of Prop 34 knew that. So to make their measure more appealing, they added a few other goodies. Among those goodies is a $100 million fund that is supposed to help law enforcement solve crimes.

This is bad budget policy. It also may be bad policy in general -- since the money is to be managed by the state attorney general. But it's good politics -- because the attorney general writes ballot titles and summaries (coincidence or not, Prop 34 got a favorable one), and because you California voters actually like measures that make the budget problem worse. That same poll found that when voters were told about the $100 million and other things in the measure, the initiative was essentially tied between yes and no.

It's worth remembering that this $100 million would reserve money that otherwise could go to other programs. Supporters of the measure would point out that eliminating the death penalty is expected to save about that same amount of money. But when a state is as short of funds for core programs as California, why would an initiative sponsor create a program that takes the money it saves away from those core programs?

The answer is: because voters like doing exactly that sort of thing.

Lead Prop Zero blogger Joe Mathews is California editor at Zocalo Public Square, a fellow at Arizona State University’s Center for Social Cohesion, and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (University of California, 2010).

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