Residents in four states will have the opportunity to vote on amendments this November that could remove language from their state constitution that permits slavery as a form of punishment for convicted criminals, though not everyone supports the referendum.
Ratified in 1865, the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolished slavery and involuntary servitude in America, but it provided leeway for the practice as punishment for individuals convicted of a crime. Several state constitutions still have language reflecting that loophole allowing involuntary servitude for prisoners, but Tennessee, Louisiana, Oregon, and Vermont are looking to change that this fall.
The Tennessee state constitution was amended five years after the 13th Amendment to state that “slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, are forever prohibited by this State.”
That language could soon be changed, however, as voters in The Volunteer State this November have been given the chance to vote yes or no on a statewide ballot referendum to amend the language used in the state’s constitution.
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Should it pass, the initiative, which has received bipartisan support and is known throughout the state as Amendment 3, will alter the language to read: “That slavery and involuntary servitude are forever prohibited in this State. Nothing in this section shall prohibit an inmate from working when the inmate has been duly convicted of a crime.”
Speaking to Fox News Digital in an interview Friday, Democratic state Rep. Dwayne Thompson, who represents portions of Shelby County, said the amendment “is symbolic in a way” and believes it will pass.
Discussing the language currently used in the state’s constitution, Thompson said it makes some people “uncomfortable” and concluded that it could be used in the future to put a “person in slavery because they’ve committed a certain crime or something.” Thompson said the amendment on the ballot this November “clears all that up” and “prevents any false interpretation in the future.”
Similarly, state Rep. Chris Hurt, a Republican, said in a statement to Fox that he supports the passage of the amendment and insisted that it would send “a clear message” that the state does not tolerate slavery for any reason.
“I firmly support eliminating the exception for slavery and involuntary servitude that still exists in Tennessee’s constitution,” Hurt said. “Words matter, and the removal of this language is long overdue. This change would send a clear message that Tennessee does not tolerate slavery in any form. I appreciate the bipartisan work that has been done to get Amendment 3 on the ballot this year, and I encourage all Tennesseans to support it.”
‘…We already abolished slavery years ago’
In contrast to many of his Republican colleagues, GOP state Sen. Joey Hensley, who was one of four senators in the state who voted against the resolution to remove slavery as a form of punishment from the Tennessee Constitution, told Fox that he believes it was “unnecessary” and took up a lot of the legislature’s time and resources.
“I think it’ll probably pass,” Hensley said. “I didn’t vote for it because I thought it was unnecessary for us to spend the time and the effort to change that because we already abolished slavery years ago.”
Concluding that no one supports the notion of slavery, Hensley said he believes there is confusion among voters about the exact meaning of the amendment and insisted that the wording used in the constitution was related to the confinement of prisoners.
“It had to pass two general assemblies, and now it’s gotta be on the ballot and people don’t really understand what they’re talking about,” Hensley said of the amendment. “It’s been in our constitution since 1870, and it wasn’t talking about slavery like people think about slavery. It was the wording. They were talking about prisoners and we still, you know, confine prisoners. It’s not slavery, but it is confining prisoners and that’s what it was talking about.”
Echoing the sentiments shared by Hurt, Republican state Rep. Jeremy Faison, who serves as chair of the state’s House Republican Caucus, told Fox that he is hopeful the amendment passes and sends “a message of unity and equality for all humans.”
“I certainly hope Amendment 3 passes,” Faison said. “Future generations will hopefully learn from the mistakes made in our past and never repeat them.”
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Democratic state Sen. Raumesh Akbari, who sponsored the resolution to abolish all forms of slavery in the state constitution and serves as chairwoman of the Senate Democratic Caucus, pointed out in a statement shared with Fox that the loophole from the 13th Amendment allowed certain southern states to later pass laws that “explicitly targeted Black people and subjected them to prison for new ‘offenses,’ such as loitering, vagrancy defined as being out of a job, breaking curfew, and having weapons.”
“No matter where you come from or what you look like, we all agree that slavery, in any form, is unacceptable and immoral,” Akbari said. “Our Tennessee Constitution should reflect those values, too. Yes on 3 represents our first and best opportunity to eliminate all slavery, with no exceptions, from the Tennessee Constitution.”
“This November, every voter in Tennessee can help us move a step closer toward reconciling the consequences of the slavery exception by voting ‘YES’ on Amendment 3,” Akbari added. “We cannot erase the sins of our past, but we can atone and move forward together.”
Despite the bipartisan support the amendment has received in the state from elected leaders, Democrat state Rep. Antonio Parkinson, who serves as chair of the Tennessee Black Caucus, said he is “honestly concerned” that the amendment won’t pass.
“You know what would be the most embarrassing situation? If it didn’t pass. I’m honestly concerned that it could be, in our state, a situation where it doesn’t actually pass,” Parkinson said in a brief interview. “Having that in your constitution, the constitution of the state — where you have descendants of slaves that live here and pay taxes here and raise children here — is totally unacceptable.”
Multiple states rework anti-slavery provisions
Other states are also moving to allow voters to decide whether to amend language used in their state’s constitution as relates to the legalities of slavery.
In Vermont, a proposal is being offered to voters that would prohibit slavery and indentured servitude in the state constitution. Even though Vermont became the first colony to abolish slavery upon its founding in 1777, the proposal, should it pass, would require that language in the state’s constitution to read: “slavery and indentured servitude in any form are prohibited.”
Similar to the opinion of Hensley in Tennessee, Vermont state Sen. Russ Ingalls, a Republican, insisted the state’s time is better spent on more pressing issues, saying there are “more important things to do [than] to defile our old important documents to change words” as the proposal on the state’s November ballot calls for.
“Vermont was the first State in the nation to outlaw slavery. It’s already plainly in our Constitution that slavery is not allowed in our state,” Ingalls said in a statement. “We have so many more important things to do [than] to defile our old important documents to change words that have already been clearly written. There is not one sane person that could so severely misinterpret the words of our constitution to make it read that Vermonters support slavery in any form. If it were to pass, it would not change anything other than a historic document that was so thoughtfully written over two hundred years ago.”
In Oregon, Measure 112, which voters will have the option to vote yes or no on, would remove the section of the state constitution that allows slavery and involuntary servitude as punishments for crimes should it pass. The measure would add language that allows an Oregon court or a probation or parole agency to order alternatives to incarceration for those convicted of crimes as part of their sentencing.
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Like those in Oregon, Louisiana voters will also have the choice this November to remove an exception in the state’s constitution that allows involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime. Should it receive a passing vote in the state, Amendment 7 would amend the constitution to state that “slavery and involuntary servitude are prohibited” and add language stating that the section of the constitution “does not apply to the otherwise lawful administration of criminal justice.”
This isn’t the first time in recent history that states have moved to alter language related to slavery from their constitutions. In 2018, voters in Colorado, Nebraska and Utah amended language related to slavery and involuntary servitude through similar ballot initiatives.