Poll Finds Americans Together on Rights Oppose Wiretaps, Torture in ACLU Survey

By Judith Davidoff
The Capital Times

Do most Americans oppose the use of torture by their military? Do they oppose government wiretapping without a court warrant?

Yes and yes, says Kate Stewart, a public opinion pollster who regularly conducts surveys for the American Civil Liberties Union.

"As more and more of the American public becomes aware of what the government is doing in our name, they're not happy with it," Stewart said in a phone conversation this week from Washington, D.C., where she is a partner in Belden Russonello Strategists.

Stewart will be in Madison on Saturday to deliver the opening remarks at the ACLU of Wisconsin's annual conference, held this year at the University of Wisconsin's Pyle Center.

Following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the Bush administration backed a series of anti-terrorism initiatives that civil liberties activists say violate constitutional freedoms in the name of national security.

Stewart's firm recently conducted a national poll to gauge how these policy decisions are playing among citizens likely to vote in the upcoming presidential election. She said clear majorities indicated they would like the next administration to reverse course on such issues as holding prisoners indefinitely at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp and wiretapping without court warrants.

These results suggest civil liberties issues could play a role in who becomes the next president, save for the fact that none of the candidates is talking much about them.

"These are issues American voters are thinking about that really aren't being discussed," Stewart said.

From late August through early September, Stewart's firm conducted a telephone survey of 800 likely presidential election voters, including 279 Democrats, 275 Republicans and 184 Independents.

Among the findings:

Republicans joined Democrats in supporting these positions, departing significantly only on the question of whether Guantanamo should be closed. Fifty-two percent of Republicans opposed closing the prison, while 69 percent of Democrats would like to see it shuttered.

The general consensus among the GOP and Dems on most of the issues is somewhat surprising, Stewart noted, given the wide divide between the parties that exists on most major issues.

Stewart said the survey results also show that Americans are unhappy with Congress' failure to check the policies of the president.

"Right now Americans are in a really bad mood," she said.

While 31 percent of all likely voters believed the president "should have the power to take whatever actions he believes are necessary to protect the country from terrorists," two-thirds believed that "the president should not be acting on his own in deciding how to fight terrorism without the checks and balances of the courts or Congress."

And when asked what would be their number one issue when casting a vote for president next year, resolving the war ranked first, followed by making health care more affordable, fighting terrorism, protecting civil liberties and the Constitution and improving public education. Taking into account the margin of error in the survey, protecting civil liberties ranked as high as other hot-button issues, Steward said.

"If it's up there on par with health care and fighting terrorism, then we should be talking about it more," she said.

At the Conference

The ACLU day-long conference will also feature Tim Sparapani, legislative counsel for the ACLU national office, who will talk about national security issues, including attempts to establish national standards for state-issued driver's licenses under so-called REAL ID legislation.

Other speakers will address voting rights and the ramifications of Wisconsin's recently passed constitutional ban on gay marriage.

Stacy Harbaugh, community advocate for the Madison office of the ACLU of Wisconsin, said the conference will cover national topics but also fill activists in on what's happening at home. She said there will be discussions on the creative ways "people can take actions on local issues," including military recruitment in the schools and immigration rights.

Harbaugh said people in Wisconsin, like the respondents in Stewart's poll, are concerned about the loss of civil liberties under the Bush Administration.

"What I hear over and over again is that people think what we're seeing with the federal administration is unique - that this is a new frontier in civil liberties violations."

Kate Stewart is a partner in the public opinion research and strategic communications firm Belden Russonello Strategists in Washington.