A recent poll of 500 likely voters in Nevada found that respondents are divided over replacing the death penalty with a life sentence in prison — a shift from the results of a 2017 poll from The Nevada Independent that found Nevada voters overwhelmingly in support of the death penalty.
The results from the David Binder Research poll commissioned by the Nevada Coalition Against the Death Penalty in January show a shift in attitudes toward the death penalty across political parties, at a time when debates over capital punishment could return to the Legislature. But the language used in the questions of the poll could be contributing to how Nevadans perceive a repeal of the death penalty.
In the 2017 Independent Poll, conducted by The Mellman Group, 600 likely voters in Nevada were asked: “As you may know, Nevada currently has the death penalty for first-degree murder. Should the state legislature keep the death penalty, or should they abolish the death penalty and replace it with a life sentence without the possibility of parole? Do you feel this way strongly or not so strongly?”
Sixty-six percent of people polled supported keeping the death penalty in place, with 27 percent in favor of abolishing it and 7 percent unsure. Poll respondents felt strongly about capital punishment — 59 percent said they “strongly” supported it, compared to 22 percent who “strongly” opposed it.
In the 2021 poll from David Binder Research, which previously did polling for the Obama campaign and received a “B/C” grade in FiveThirtyEight’s pollster ratings, likely Nevada voters were asked: “Just in general, which punishment do you think is most appropriate for people convicted of first-degree murder?”
The most commonly selected category was the death penalty, which 36 percent of respondents chose. However, 53 percent of respondents chose some version of a life sentence over the death penalty, including about half who chose life in prison with possibility of parole after 20 or 40 years and half who chose life in prison with no possibility of parole. Eleven percent responded that they did not know.
Those results became more narrow with a differently framed question. When voters were asked if they support or oppose replacing the death penalty with a sentence of life in prison without parole, 49 percent of respondents voted in support compared to 46 percent in opposition — 29 percent “strongly” supported the change, and 33 percent “strongly” opposed it. That 3 percent difference falls within the 4.4 margin of error for the full poll sample.
After voters were presented with information about the death penalty, including the number of individuals in Nevada who were released from Death Row based on their innocence and the cost of the death penalty, voters were asked the same question again. Fifty-four percent of respondents then supported replacing the death penalty with a sentence of life in prison without parole, compared to 41 percent of respondents who opposed the change.
“Nevadans are realizing what's been the truth for or what's been becoming apparent for the past several decades, which is the death penalty is broken,” said Scott Coffee, a public defender and board member of the coalition against the death penalty. “There's a lot better ways to service our community and protect our community.”
Though the data indicates Nevadans are still split, the increased desire for repeal is still a significant change from four years ago, and advocates could use that support to push for a vote on a death penalty abolition bill. But the bill would still have to be approved by Gov. Steve Sisolak, who previously said that the death penalty is appropriate in “very extreme” cases. At least two such bills have been requested this session.
The Nevada Coalition Against the Death Penalty sent The Nevada Independent a memo on the poll and an analysis of some of the data but declined to provide the full poll and crosstabs.