Four States Banned Slavery on Tuesday. One Voted to Keep It … Sort Of

Tennessee-voters.jpg - Credit: Patrick Lantrip/Daily Memphian/AP
Tennessee-voters.jpg - Credit: Patrick Lantrip/Daily Memphian/AP

Slavery was on the ballot in five states on Tuesday, with four of them — Alabama, Tennessee, Vermont, and Oregon — approving constitutional amendments to abolish the use of involuntary labor as a form of punishment. The fifth, Louisiana, rejected the measure after the Democratic state lawmaker who proposed it wound up telling voters to oppose it over an issue with the wording on the ballot.

The ballot measures address a caveat in the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” The loophole was exploited by many former slaveholding states, including Louisiana, to criminalize newly freed former slaves and create involuntarily held workforces during Reconstruction. Louisiana has long been home to the Louisiana State Penitentiary, a sprawling prison-farm nicknamed “Angola.” Malcolm Alexander, a former inmate who was wrongfully convicted and incarcerated for almost four decades and exonerated in 2018, described working at Angola as something “like you see in old pictures of slavery … we even had a quota we had to meet at the end of the day.”

The amendment in Louisiana, submitted by state Rep. Edmond Jordan, would have abolished both slavery and involuntary servitude in the state. The language of the amendment was changed, however, in order to exempt prison sentences, resulting in confusion and Jordan ultimately urging voters to reject the measure, promising to resubmit a “clean” version to voters.

Before Tuesday’s midterms, only four other states had barred slavery as a form of punishment, Colorado, Rhode Island, and as of 2020, Nebraska and Utah. “It is time for all Americans to come together and say that it must be struck from the U.S. Constitution,” Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) told the Associated Press. “There should be no exceptions to a ban on slavery.”

The votes this week are a major step in establishing labor rights for incarcerated people. “Incarcerated workers are under the complete control of their employers, and they have been stripped of even the most minimal protections against labor exploitation and abuse,” reads an  ACLU report published in June. The ACLU has advocated for a total repeal of “federal and state constitutional exception clauses allowing slavery and involuntary servitude to be used as punishment for a criminal conviction.”

This piece has been updated to reflect Rep. Edmond Jordan’s call for voters to reject the slavery amendment in Louisiana.

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