A growing coalition of Christian, fiscally conservative and libertarian lawmakers are pushing to repeal the death penalty in some of America’s reddest states. And after years of working against state-sponsored executions, historically a Democratic platform, some conservatives say they believe the efforts are gaining traction.
The push for reform was on full display last week in Nebraska, as 17 Republican lawmakers in the one-house legislature advocated for passage of abolition bill LB268.
“I know many of you, when you went door to door, you said to the constituent you talked to: ‘You send me to Lincoln, [Nebraska,] and when I get down there I’m going to find government programs that don’t work, and I’m going to get rid of them,’” Senator Colby Coash told fellow lawmakers. “And that’s exactly what LB268 does … We can get justice without this method.”
The bill passed its first hurdle with a 30 to 12 vote in favor of repeal, potentially enough to override Republican governor Pete Ricketts’ veto threat. Two more successful votes are needed to send the bill to the governor’s desk, and there is strong opposition, including filibuster threats, to overcome. Still, conservative advocates said they believe it is one of the most promising developments in decades.
“We’re probably in the best position we’ve been in since the bill passed in 1979,” said Stacy Anderson, the conservative executive director of Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, about the last time the state’s legislature passed an abolition bill. “From the conservative standpoint, the death penalty fails on all of our core values.”
Still, conservative activists point to the 10% decrease in Republican support over 20 years, growing support for life without parole as an alternative to the death penalty, and the issue’s low priority ranking among voters.
The most widely cited reasons for opposing the death penalty seem in line with some of the most fervent strains of American Republicanism: fiscal conservatism, pro-life principles and small government ideals.
And with increasing scrutiny on states that continue to execute prisoners despite a shortage of lethal injection drugs, the issue appears poised to continue to attract attention.
“It’s a government program that risks innocent life, costs more than the alternative, and is certainly not about limited government,” said Marc Hyden, an outreach specialist with Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty.
“When I’m first speaking, I think conservatives give me kind of a weird look,” said Hyden. “But about halfway through the presentation, it starts clicking with them – that this is a program that just doesn’t mesh with conservative ideals.”
The campaign has seen growing interest in red states such as Georgia, Kentucky, Kansas and Tennessee, both Hyden and abolitionists said.
In Montana, a fiercely conservative state, a death penalty abolition bill made it out of the House judiciary committee for the first time perhaps ever, according to death penalty abolition advocates there.
“I was shocked,” Moore told the Missoulian. “I didn’t expect it to come out of committee.” At the time that the bill passed to the floor, a stunned Moore described it as having “a tiger by the tail”.
The abolition bill failed in a vote on the house floor, but many see its progress out of the judiciary committee as nothing short of stunning.
“We were very excited,” said Jennifer Kirby about the bill’s progress. “It’s about time.”