In 5 States, Slavery Was on the Ballot

And amendments to ban it and forced labor in prisons didn't pass everywhere
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Nov 9, 2022 10:15 AM CST
In 5 States, Slavery Was on the Ballot
A voter is seen at the polls at Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church in Memphis, Tenn., on Tuesday.   (Patrick Lantrip/Daily Memphian via AP)

Voters in three states approved ballot measures that will change their state constitutions to prohibit slavery and involuntary servitude as punishment for crime, while those in a fourth state rejected the move. The measures approved Tuesday curtail the use of prison labor in Alabama, Tennessee, and Vermont. In Oregon, "yes" was leading its anti-slavery ballot initiative, but the vote remained too early to call Wednesday morning. In Louisiana, a former slaveholding state, voters rejected a ballot question known as Amendment 7 that asked whether they supported a constitutional amendment to prohibit the use of involuntary servitude in the criminal justice system. The initiatives won't force immediate changes in the states' prisons, but they may invite legal challenges over the practice of coercing prisoners to work under threat of sanctions or loss of privileges if they refuse the work.

The results were celebrated among anti-slavery advocates, including those pushing to further amend the US Constitution, which prohibits enslavement and involuntary servitude except as a form of criminal punishment. More than 150 years after enslaved Africans and their descendants were released from bondage through ratification of the 13th Amendment, the slavery exception continues to permit the exploitation of low-cost labor by incarcerated individuals. "Voters in Oregon and other states have come together across party lines to say that this stain must be removed from state constitutions," Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley tells the AP. "Now, it is time for all Americans to come together and say that it must be struck from the US Constitution." He adds, "There should be no exceptions to a ban on slavery."

Coinciding with the creation of the Juneteenth federal holiday last year, Merkley and Rep. Nikema Williams, D-Georgia, reintroduced legislation to revise the 13th Amendment to end the slavery exception. If it wins approval in Congress, the constitutional amendment must be ratified by three-fourths of US states. After Tuesday, more than a dozen states still have constitutions that permit slavery and involuntary servitude for prisoners. The movement to end or regulate prison labor has existed since the time when former Confederate states sought ways to keep the use of chattel slavery after the Civil War. Southern states used so-called "Black codes" to criminalize, imprison, and reenslave Black Americans over benign behavior. Today, prison labor is a multibillion-dollar practice. "The 13th Amendment didn't actually abolish slavery—what it did was make it invisible," says an advocate.

(Read more slavery stories.)

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