Updated Nov 10, 2022 - Politics & Policy

4 states reject slavery-related language in constitution via ballot measures

A "Vote Here" sign located outside a polling station in Huntsville, Alabama.

A polling station is marked in Huntsville, Ala. Photo: Andi Rice/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Voters across states made decisions in the 2022 midterms on whether to close the loopholes in their constitutions that allow for slavery and involuntary servitude.

The big picture: Before the midterms, about 20 state constitutions allowed forced labor or slavery as punishment for crimes, even though slavery was abolished in the United States 150 years ago, Axios' Shawna Chen reports.

  • There are incarcerated people across the country who are paid little to no money for intense labor, Axios reports. Often these workers do not receive protections like those in the workforce, losing out on wages and potentially facing solitary confinement if they do not work.

Flashback: Colorado became the first state to remove such language by ballot measure in 2018, Chen writes. Utah and Nevada did the same in 2020. Here’s a look at the specific measures on the ballot for 2022:

States eliminate slavery-related language

At least three states approved measures to change their state constitutions to prohibit slavery and involuntary servitude as a punishment, per AP.

  • Alabama voted on a constitutional amendment proposal that will eliminate racist language from the state Constitution and delete an exemption that allows for involuntary servitude for certain crimes, per the AP.
  • Tennessee voters considered a constitutional amendment to remove slavery as punishment for a crime and replace it with the sentence, "Slavery and involuntary servitude are forever prohibited."
  • Vermont voters voted on a proposal to remove language that allows for slavery and involuntary solitude, while also saying that "slavery and indentured servitude in any form are prohibited."
  • Oregon voters approved a measure to remove slavery as punishment for a crime and add language that allows an Oregon court or probation and parole agencies to order an alternative for those incarcerated for their sentencing, per AP.

Louisiana rejects constitutional change

Louisiana rejected a proposal to change a line in the constitution that critics have argued still permits slavery and involuntary servitude, AP reports.

  • Louisiana’s Constitution has a sentence that reads, “Slavery and involuntary servitude are prohibited, except in the latter case as punishment for a crime.”
  • The amendment would have changed that line: “Slavery and involuntary servitude are prohibited, (but this) does not apply to the otherwise lawful administration of criminal justice.”

Go deeper: Where slavery is on the ballot this November

Editor's note: This story has been updated with additional details.

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