The referendum will ask voters if they would like the death penalty to be reinstated for cases of first-degree homicide supported by DNA evidence. The question is simply a poll for state lawmakers, and if passed would not result in the death penalty being reinstated.
The protest, organized by the University of Wisconsin chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, drew about 12 people. The protesters were originally supposed to carry tombstone-shaped signs as they marched down the street but forgot them at their offices.
Before reaching the Capitol, organizers stopped at their State Street offices to pick up the signs, which read such phrases as "No Death Penalty" and "Doesn't Deter Crime." They then carried the signs into the Capitol rotunda where they proceeded to lie down on the floor in silence.
Stacy Harbaugh, community advocate for the Madison-area ACLU, said the turnout was good considering students had only been planning the event for one week.
"Students are very busy — they are over-committed and very involved in a lot of things on campus," she said. "With all the other things they could have been doing, I think it was cool that we had the group that we did."
Wisconsin outlawed the death penalty 153 years ago, and Wisconsin holds the longest-running death penalty ban in the nation.
State Sen. Alan Lasee, R-De Pere, who authored the referendum, said gruesome murders that have taken place in the last couple of decades motivated him to call the question.
"Thirty-eight states have the death penalty, and it's used very selectively, very minimally and reserved for those cases where the murders are very vicious," Lasee said.
He added that there would not be a mandate requiring courts to ask for the death penalty, only the option.
But Harbaugh said the state does not have the infrastructure to support the death penalty.
"Our lawyers aren't trained in capital cases, [and] we don't have maximum security prisons set up for death-row inmates," she said. "I really think it's something politicians are using to look tough on crime."
The ACLU also maintains the death penalty is too costly and does not deter crime.
"In general, we think its expensive, [and] we think it's inappropriate for the government to be executing people," said Ben Evans, secretary of the UW chapter. "[T]here is always the problem of innocent people being executed."