New Polls Show Voters Reject Expanded Patriot Act Powers; Majorities Consider Civil Liberties Important in Presidential Election

December 9, 2003 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON – New polls commissioned by the American Civil Liberties Union and released publicly today show strong opposition among likely voters to expansion of the Patriot Act and other similar policies that grant the Attorney General more discretion in collecting Americans’ private information. The polls also show that strong majorities of Americans consider civil liberties very important in how they vote.

“Contrary to what many say, this heartening new data proves that American voters have a keen sense of the right and wrong directions for our democracy,” said ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero. “Post-9/11 security measures are clearly of great concern to majorities of voters around the country.”

The polls, conducted by the Washington-based firm Belden, Russonello and Stewart, measured voters’ attitudes toward 2001’s USA Patriot Act, the sweeping anti-terrorism law that dramatically expanded federal surveillance and investigative powers and similar policies. Interviewers conducted 400 random phone interviews with likely voters in each of four states: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida and New Mexico.

The surveys revealed six key findings about voters’ attitudes toward the government’s current direction in the fight against terrorism. The margin of sampling error for each state survey is plus or minus 4.9 percentage points.

  • Majorities of voters have strong reservations about President Bush’s recent push to expand the government’s discretion in collecting and scrutinizing private information.
  • Voters are more likely to support a candidate who is willing to revisit and, if necessary, revise specific parts of the Patriot Act than one who strongly supports the law.
  • When presented with a choice, majorities of voters reject being more concerned about fighting terrorism than protecting civil liberties.
  • In the hierarchy of 2004 election issues, protecting civil liberties are a middle-tier priority for voters. Doing so is more of a priority than promoting “moral values,” protecting the environment, cutting the deficit and reducing taxes.
  • While voters are largely unfamiliar with the specifics of the Patriot Act itself, they oppose many of its specific provisions and other government actions since 9/11, including secret detentions of non-citizens, secret search warrants, expanded government access to personal records and requiring librarians to turn over details about Americans’ reading habits.
  • On related issues – such as racial, ethnic or national origin profiling – voters are similarly opposed. About seven in 10 voters are less likely to support a candidate who believes the “police should be allowed to stop and question a person because of the person’s religion or country they are from.” Nearly half are “much less likely” to support this candidate.

“The polling suggests that the tragedy of 9/11 has produced the highest level of popular concern for our basic freedoms since the most frigid days of the Cold War,” said Laura W. Murphy, Director of the ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office. “Next year’s election is accordingly going to be a historic bellwether for civil liberties.”

The ACLU is a non-partisan organization that does not support or oppose candidates for public office.

The questionnaire and results are online at: /node/22684

The documentation for the poll can be found at: /node/22708

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