Silicon Valley funds fight to end death penalty in California

Many Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are donating to support a proposition that will appear on a November ballot in California that ends death penalty.

Gus Ruelas/Reuters/File
Laurene Powell Jobs, founder and chair of Emerson Collective and widow of the late Apple founder Steve Jobs, along with Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (R) and Rupert Murdoch (L), chairman and CEO of News Corporation, takes part in a panel discussion titled "Immigration Strategy for the Borderless Economy" at the Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills, California April 29, 2013.

Some Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have a new goal: Ending executions in California.

A proposition to end the death penalty, on the Nov. 8 ballot, has generated significant interest from the tech billionaires, some of them first-time donors to social causes and ballot measures. 

“It feels like now the time is right,” Nicholas McKeown, a computer science professor at Stanford University and founder of four tech companies, tells The Los Angeles Times. “Public opinion has changed a lot, and there’s also the general sense that we need to bring about that change in California so that it sweeps across the country to the Supreme Court and nationwide.”

For Silicon Valley to finance social and political causes that they believe in is not unusual. They have backed – or opposed – gay marriage and the 2016 presidential candidates, for example. Some do it in public, while others have reportedly turned to "dark money" political contributions.

“My objection to the death penalty is not based on some abstract principle that it’s bad to kill people,” Paul Graham, co-founder of Y Combinator, Silicon Valley’s largest startup factory, told Bloomberg in July. “It’s because so many of the people who get executed are actually innocent. If you look at the way some of these trials are conducted, it’s shocking.” 

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, the number of executions nationwide has been falling since the 90s. California has the most number of death row inmates but ranks 17th in number of executions actually carried out. Proposition 62 will replace death penalties with lifelong prison sentences without parole.

Stanford Prof. McKeown tops the list of donors to Proposition 62, followed by Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, Mr. Graham, and Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of the former Apple Inc. CEO. Their support, totaling $4.2 million, puts them in opposition with Proposition 66, another ballot initiative that seeks to speed up the death penalty system. The latter is supported by many police associations, prosecutors and sheriffs, and has contributions totaling $4.3 million.

Silicon Valley opposition to the state's death penalty in some ways parallels the tendency of its entrepreneurs to donate more to Democratic candidates and to champion liberal causes.

According to a Pew Research survey in September, while support for death penalty has fallen over the decades nationally, 72 percent of Republicans favor it compare to 34 percent of Democrats. 

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg’s immigration reform lobbying group, has lobbied for a path to citizenship over mass deportation, as advocated by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. Google, Apple, Microsoft and other tech companies publicly opposed North Carolina’s anti-LGBT discrimination law this year. 

In July, close to 150 current and former executives at technology firms ranging from Apple to Wikipedia signed an open letter condemning Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. 

The liberal leanings of Silicon Valley have made it tough for conservative CEOs to be as politically outspoken. The most famous case may be two years ago when Brendan Eich stepped down as chief executive officer of Mozilla Foundation when it was revealed that he supported an anti-gay marriage proposition. 

There are also issues that the tech billionaires are condemned for not speaking out on, such as homelessness in San Francisco, a situation that many say Silicon Valley has indirectly caused by pushing up home prices. As reported by USA Today, the San Francisco metropolitan area is home to Twitter, Salesforce, Uber, and Airbnb - yet it ranks fifth nationally for homelessness rate.

While the companies or their executives may be starting to hold more sway in politics, their donations aren’t necessarily a guarantee for influencing public opinion.

This isn't the first time the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have tried to repeal California's death penalty. In 2012, a similar ballot measure that drew at least $7.2 million in donations, including contributions from McKeown and Hastings, failed to pass.

Recent polls by USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times find that the more than half of voters are against abolishing the death penalty in the state, and Proposition 62 only has 40 percent of support. 

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