In 2022, voters in five states — Alabama, Louisiana, Oregon, Tennessee, and Vermont — will decide on ballot measures to repeal language from their state constitutions that allows slavery or involuntary servitude for the punishment of a crime, or, in Vermont, for the payment of debts, damages, or fines.
As of 2022, 10 states had constitutions that included provisions prohibiting enslavement and involuntary servitude but with an exception for criminal punishments. Nine states had constitutions that included provisions permitting involuntary servitude, but not slavery, as a criminal punishment. One state—Vermont—had a constitutional provision permitting involuntary servitude to pay a debt, damage, fine, or cost. These constitutional provisions were added to state constitutions, in their original forms, from the 1850s to the 1890s.
Measures on the ballot in November:
- Tennessee Remove Slavery as Punishment for Crime from Constitution Amendment (2022): Removes language that allows the use of slavery and involuntary servitude as criminal punishments and replaces it with the statement, “Slavery and involuntary servitude are forever prohibited.”
- Oregon Remove Slavery as Punishment for Crime from Constitution Amendment (2022): Repeals language from the state constitution that allows the use of slavery and involuntary servitude as criminal punishments and adds language that authorizes an Oregon court or a probation or parole agency to order alternatives to incarceration for a convicted individual as part of their sentencing.
- Vermont Proposal 2, Prohibit Slavery and Indentured Servitude Amendment (2022): Repeals 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 add “slavery and indentured servitude in any form are prohibited.”
- Alabama Recompiled Constitution Ratification Question (2022): Ratifies an updated and recompiled state constitution that was drafted to, among other changes, remove racist language. In 2020, voters authorized the Legislature to repeal racist language from the Alabama Constitution. The Committee on the Recompilation of the Constitution considered the servitude language to be racist, as well as having no practical impact on the state’s current practices. The section stating “That no form of slavery shall exist in this state; and there shall not be any involuntary servitude, otherwise than for the punishment of crime, of which the party shall have been duly convicted,” was removed in the updated constitution.
- Louisiana Remove Involuntary Servitude as Punishment for a Crime from Constitution Amendment (2022): Removes language in the state constitution that allows involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime. The constitution would be amended to say, “Slavery and involuntary servitude are prohibited.” The amendment would add language stating that the section of the constitution “does not apply to the otherwise lawful administration of criminal justice.”
Previously decided ballot measures:
Before 2022, voters approved measures to repeal such language from their constitutions in three states — Colorado (2018), approved with 66% voting in favor; Nebraska (2020), approved with 68% voting in favor; and Utah (2020), approved with 80% voting in favor.
Future ballot measures:
Voters in Nevada could decide in 2024 to repeal language in the state constitution that allows the use of slavery and involuntary servitude as criminal punishments. In Nevada, a majority vote is required in two successive sessions of the Nevada State Legislature to place an amendment on the ballot. The amendment was introduced in the Nevada House of Representatives as Assembly Joint Resolution 10 (AJR 10). On April 13, 2021, it was approved by the House in a vote of 42-0. On May 17, 2021, it was approved in the Senate by a vote of 21-0. The amendment must also pass in the 2023 legislative session.