Vermont voters to decide constitutional amendment for the first time in 12 years that would prohibit slavery and indentured servitude

The Vermont House of Representatives took the final vote on Feb. 4 to send Proposal 2 to voters in November. The constitutional amendment would repeal language stating that persons could be held as servants, slaves, or apprentices with the person’s consent or “for the payments of debts, damages, fines, costs, or the like” and would add “slavery and indentured servitude in any form are prohibited.”

In Vermont, a constitutional amendment requires a vote in each chamber of the Vermont General Assembly in two successive legislative sessions with an election in between. However, there are different vote requirements depending on the session and chamber. During the first legislative session, the constitutional amendment needs to receive a two-thirds vote in the state Senate and a simple majority (50%+1) vote in the state House. During the second legislative session, the constitutional amendment needs to receive a simple majority vote in each legislative chamber.

State Sens. Debbie Ingram (D-Chittenden), Timothy Ashe (D-Chittenden), and Jane Kitchel (D-Caledonia) were the lead sponsors of Proposal 2 in the Vermont General Assembly in 2019.

The state Senate approved Proposal 2 on April 24, 2019. The vote was 28-1. At least 21 votes were needed to pass the constitutional amendment. The state House approved Proposal 2 on Jan. 21, 2020. The vote was 145-0. At least 73 votes were needed.

Proposal 2 was introduced during the 2021-2022 legislative session on March 31, 2021. It was approved by the state Senate by a vote of 29-1 on April 9, 2021. Only 15 votes were needed for the second vote in the senate. It was approved by the state House by a vote of 139-3 on Feb. 4, 2022. At least 71 votes were needed. The majority requirement was slightly lower the second time because Vermont determines their vote requirement by the number of members voting and not the total number of representatives.

In support of the amendment, State Rep. Hal Colston (D) said, “My truth as a descendent of slave advocates is that this current language gives the appearance that there may be an exception for the existence of slavery and indentured servitude. Language is powerful and the truth shall set us free.”

The amendment will be the first measure to be decided by Vermont voters in 12 years. The last constitutional amendment was referred to ballots in 2010 where it was approved. Vermont voters have only decided on one other amendment between 1995 and 2021. It was also approved.

Currently, 10 states have constitutions that included provisions prohibiting enslavement and involuntary servitude but with an exception for criminal punishments. These constitutional provisions were added to state constitutions, in their original forms, from the 1850s to the 1890s. Nine states have constitutions that included provisions permitting involuntary servitude, but not slavery, as a criminal punishment. Vermont is the only state to have a constitutional provision permitting involuntary servitude to pay a debt, damage, fine, or cost.

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