Examining Death Penalty Ballot Measures: A Review of Austin Sarat’s The Death Penalty on the Ballot
Examining Death Penalty Ballot Measures: A Review of Austin Sarat’s The Death Penalty on the Ballot, ___ SEATTLE J. SOC. JUST. ___ (2020, Forthcoming).
16 Pages Posted: 16 Jun 2020
Date Written: 2020
Austin Sarat’s 2019 book The Death Penalty on the Ballot chronicles U.S. death penalty ballot measures over the last one hundred years. Since the early twentieth century, there have been twenty-nine capital punishment ballot measures, and abolitionists lost twenty-five times. Since 1968, all fifteen of the death penalty ballot initiatives proposed by pro-death penalty advocates have been approved. Sarat provides far more insight into the issue than simply tallying the results of ballot measures. He provides illuminating, behind-the-scenes analysis of the tactics used by both abolitionists and retentionists.
This review is primarily limited to six topics: (1) inflated survey results; (2) race; (3) retentionist arguments; (4) abolitionist arguments; (5) deterrence versus incapacity; and (6) the death penalty as undemocratic. However, Sarat’s book is not limited to these topics. It covers many additional areas related to death penalty ballot measures, such as the distorting influence of money and special interest groups and whether or not initiatives and referendum rules that require a two-thirds majority violate the spirit of the “one-person, one-vote” principle. The book provides an inside glimpse into abolitionist and retentionist strategies, which start before a ballot initiative is even created. Selecting which election a ballot referendum will be on can be a strategic move. “Jack initiatives” can be used to increase voter turnout in a targeted demographic of the electorate which can benefit a specific candidate. In one instance, a proposition to abolish the death penalty and a proposition to remove legal protections from capital case appeals were both on the same ballot. It was determined that, in the peculiar result of both propositions passing, the one with the most “Yes” votes would override the other.
Covering death-penalty ballot measures over a one-hundred-year period also uncovers many intriguing stories. Examples include an abolitionist who accused retentionists of being “more attached to the death penalty than to their mothers” and a botched electric chair execution due to the seemingly trivial last-minute replacement of the required, authentic sea sponge with a supermarket synthetic sponge.
Keywords: Capital punishment, Austin Sarat, Death Penalty, Abolition, Cruel and Unusual Punishment, Botched execution, Ballot initiative, Race, Eighth Amendment, Executing innocent
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