On May 4, the Tennessee General Assembly voted to refer a constitutional amendment to the 2022 general election ballot that would remove language that allows the use of slavery and involuntary servitude as criminal punishment and replace it with the statement, “Slavery and involuntary servitude are forever prohibited.” The ballot measure would also state that the language does not prohibit an inmate from working when the inmate has been duly convicted of a crime.
In 2020, voters in Nebraska and Utah voted to remove language from their respective constitutions that allowed the use of slavery and involuntary servitude as criminal punishments. Nebraska Amendment 1 was approved by a margin of 68.23% to 31.77%. Utah Constitutional Amendment C was approved by a margin of 80.48% to 19.52%.
As of 2021:
• Ten 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.
The Tennessee State Legislature can refer constitutional amendments to the ballot for gubernatorial general elections. The Tennessee Constitution requires the legislature to approve a constitutional amendment during two successive legislative sessions with an election in between. However, the constitution provides for two different vote requirements depending on the session. During the first legislative session, the constitutional amendment needs to receive a simple majority (50%+1) vote in each legislative chamber. During the second legislative session, the constitutional amendment needs to receive a two-thirds vote in each legislative chamber. In the state Senate, that amounts to 17 votes during the first session and 22 votes during the second session, assuming no vacancies. In the state House, that amounts to 50 votes during the first session and 66 votes during the second session.
During the 2019 legislative session, Sen. Raumesh Akbari (D-29) introduced the constitutional amendment into the legislature as Senate Joint Resolution 159 (SJR 159) on February 5, 2019.
On March 25, 2019, the state Senate approved SJR 159, in a vote of 32-0. On April 22, 2019, the state House approved SJR 159, in a vote of 97-0.
The amendment was introduced during the 2021 legislative session as Senate Joint Resolution 80 (SJR 80). The Senate approved SJR 80 on March 15, 2021, in a vote of 26-4. On May 4, 2021, the House approved SJR 80 in a vote of 81-2, with two present and not voting.
State Representatives Joe Towns (D) said, “Today is a historic day as this state has taken a definitive step forward in stripping all forms of slavery from the Tennessee State Constitution. Some Tennesseans may be prisoners, but, by God, they will not be slaves. We are the first Southern State to embrace universal abolition. I am proud to have carried this joint resolution and now we need all Tennesseans to join us in correcting this wrong by voting for this constitutional amendment in November of 2022.”
The amendment is one of three set to appear on the 2022 statewide ballot. Tennessee voters will also be deciding a right to work amendment and an amendment that provides a process, along with a line of succession, for an acting governor when the governor is unable to perform the offices’ powers and duties.
Tennessee voters last decided on a constitutional amendment in 2014. Tennessee voters approved 100% of the 11 statewide ballot measures appearing on ballots between 1995 and 2014.