Voters in four states approved voting measures that will amend their state constitutions to outlaw slavery and involuntary servitude as punishment for crimes, while those in a fifth state opposed the move.
Measures approved Tuesday limit the use of prison workers in Alabama, Oregon, Tennessee and Vermont.
In Louisiana, a former slave-owning state, voters rejected a poll question known as Amendment 7, which asked if they supported a constitutional amendment prohibiting the use of involuntary servitude in the criminal justice system. Ahead of Election Day, State Assemblyman Edmond Jordan, a Baton Rouge Democrat and author of the amendment, reportedly urged voters to oppose the measure because the wording on the ballot differed from his proposal.
Jordan did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday morning.
The four approved initiatives will not force immediate changes in state prisons, but they may lead to legal challenges over the practice of forcing prisoners to work under threat of sanctions or loss of privilege if they refuse to work.
The results were hailed by anti-slavery advocates, including those who pushed for another amendment to the US Constitution that prohibits enslavement and involuntary servitude except as a form of criminal punishment. More than 150 years after enslaved Africans and their descendants were freed from bondage by ratification of the 13th Amendment, the exemption from slavery continues to permit labor exploitation by imprisoned individuals.
“Voters in Oregon and other states have joined across party lines to say this taint needs to be removed from state constitutions,” Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley, a Democrat, told The Associated Press.
“Now is the time for all Americans to come together and say it needs to be taken out of the US Constitution. There should be no exceptions to a ban on slavery,” he said.
Coinciding with the implementation of the June 16 federal holiday last year, Merkley and Rep. Nikema Williams, D-Georgia, reintroduced legislation to revise the 13th Amendment to end the slavery exception. If passed in Congress, the constitutional amendment would need ratification by three-fourths of US states.
After Tuesday’s vote, more than a dozen states still have constitutions that include language allowing slavery and involuntary servitude for prisoners. Several other states have no constitutional language for or against the use of forced labor in prison.
Colorado voters were the first to vote in 2018 to remove the slavery exemption from the state constitution, followed by Nebraska and Utah two years later.
The movement to end or regulate the use of prison labor has existed for decades, ever since the former Confederate states sought ways to perpetuate post-Civil War slavery. Southern states used racist laws called “Black Codes” to criminalize, incarcerate, and re-enslave Black Americans for benign behavior.
Today prison labor is a multi-billion dollar practice. By comparison, workers can make pennies on the dollar. And prisoners who refuse to work can be denied privileges like phone calls and family visits, as well as solitary confinement, all punishments similar to those of pre-war slavery.
“The 13th Amendment didn’t actually abolish slavery — it just made it invisible,” Bianca Tylek, an anti-slavery advocate and executive director of the criminal justice advocacy group Worth Rises, told the AP in an interview ahead of election day.
She said the passing of the ballot initiatives, particularly in red states like Alabama, is “a great signal of what’s possible at the federal level.”
“Right now, there’s a big opportunity here,” Tylek said.
Aaron Morrison is a New York City-based member of AP’s Race and Ethnicity team. Follow him on Twitter at https://www.twitter.com/aaronlmorrison. Follow AP’s coverage of the midterm elections at https://apnews.com/hub/2022-midterm-elections and visit https://apnews.com/hub/explaining-the-elections to learn more about the issues and Factors to learn while playing.