Alabama, Oregon, Tennessee and Vermont have closed loopholes in their state constitutions that had allowed prisoners to be subjected to forced labor. Louisiana, where the activist behind all five anti-slavery measures was incarcerated for 25 years, was the only state to reject such a measure during the November 8 midterm elections.
More than 60 percent of voters rejected Louisiana Amendment 7, also known as the Remove Involuntary Servitude as Punishment for a Crime from Constitution Measure. Amendment 7 would have updated the state constitution so that its ban on involuntary servitude no longer includes an exemption allowing it as punishment for a crime. But the proposed language was convoluted, describing the prohibition of involuntary servitude as something that would “not apply to the otherwise lawful administration of criminal justice.”
It’s unclear whether the outcome was impacted by people unintentionally voting against their interests. And some people opposed to involuntary servitude still opposed the measure intentionally, out of concern that the confusing language could have been used to actually expand the practice.
Convoluted language has plagued state-level anti-slavery initiatives for years.
Amendment 7 didn’t receive a majority “Yes” vote in any of the state’s 64 parishes, although results for St. Tammany show 49 percent voted in favor as of publication time. More than 95 percent of ballots in the state have been counted.
Curtis Davis, the criminal justice reform activist who worked to get all five measures on their state’s ballots, spent 25 years in the Louisiana State Penitentiary. Compulsory labor he endured there included being forced to pick cotton at gunpoint.
“I was like, ‘I know my rights, I’m not a slave,’” Davis told the Appeal. “And they say, ‘But yes, you are.’”
Convoluted language has plagued state-level anti-slavery initiatives for years. Colorado succeeded in 2018, after rephrasing a failed attempt from 2016—yet lawsuits allege that since 2018, prisoners in Colorado have still effectively been required to perform forced labor.
Nebraska and Utah have also passed anti-slavery measures in recent years.
In Oregon, some confusion around phrasing as well as opposition from local law enforcement ultimately gave way to support for anti-slavery Measure 112. Though only 64 percent of votes had been counted as of publication time, the margin is sufficient to show the measure succeeded.
In Tennessee, one of the four states where a 2022 measure succeeded, the ballot language was at least somewhat less ambiguous than Louisiana’s: “Slavery and involuntary servitude are forever prohibited. Nothing in this section shall prohibit an inmate from working when the inmate has been duly convicted of a crime.”
In Vermont, a blanket ban on slavery and indentured servitude replaced language that had contained an exemption “for the payments of debts, damages, fines, costs or the like.”
In Alabama, where thousands of incarcerated people united in a labor strike from late September to mid October, the anti-slavery measure was packaged into a much broader initiative that “remove[d] all racist language” from the state constitution.
Photograph via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 2.0