State Watch

States consider nixing antiquated slavery language from founding documents

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Voters in five states will consider rewriting their constitutions this year to remove outdated language that allows for involuntary servitude, putting a spotlight on rarely or never-used punishments that have roots in America’s legacy of slavery.

The Louisiana state Senate voted last week to add a measure to this year’s ballot that would modernize the state constitution to explicitly prohibit slavery and involuntary servitude. The unanimous Senate vote came about a week after the House voted 96 to 0 in favor of placing the measure before voters this November.

The current constitution, adopted in 1974, prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude “except in the latter case as punishment for crime.” If voters approve the change, that clause would be struck.

In Alabama, a newly proposed state constitution would eliminate a line that exists in the previous version that allows for involuntary servitude only for punishment of a crime. Voters in Oregon, Tennessee and Vermont will get to vote on similar changes to their existing constitutions.

The versions in Tennessee and Vermont go farther than simply eliminating forced work as acceptable punishments for a crime. Both ballot measures before voters this year would add specific clauses that proactively prohibit slavery or involuntary servitude; the Tennessee version adds the word “forever” to the new clause.

“As we work to ensure that all Vermonters are treated equally and fairly, it is crucial that we amend the archaic language of the Constitution to emphasize that slavery and indentured servitude in any form and for persons of any age are prohibited,” state House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D) said in a statement when her chamber forwarded the change to voters earlier this year.

Founding documents in 19 states still allow some version of slavery or involuntary servitude as punishments for crimes, according to Ballotpedia, a nonpartisan reference source on American government.

Slavery is permitted — though never actually used — in Oregon, Nevada, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi. Involuntary servitude is included, though never used, in California, Kansas, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Louisiana.

In recent years, several other states have moved to modernize state laws that allowed the practice. Voters in Utah, Colorado, Nebraska and Rhode Island expressly forbid the practice. In three of those states, voters have excised the old language in just the last few years.

Rhode Island, founded as the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations in 1636, has outlawed servitude since 1843. Voters there opted to drop the reference to Providence Plantations in 2020.

State constitutions are updated and amended far more frequently than is the United States Constitution, for several reasons. In some states, the threshold to change the constitution is low, requiring only a simple majority vote of the people. In others, it takes no more than an act of the legislature, because the constitution acts as the state code.

Alabama’s constitution is an extreme example: Adopted in 1901, it has been amended 977 times.

Many of those amendments counteract earlier revisions, or even the core of the document itself, passed in an era when racist white legislators specifically advocated for laws and rules that established and supported white supremacy over Black people who had been freed from slavery 36 years earlier. The initial document bars interracial marriage and mandates school segregation.

“There is some racist terminology in there and this is going to address some of that,” state House Speaker Mac McCutcheon (R) told The Associated Press.

This year, voters will have the chance to ratify a sweeping overhaul of Alabama’s constitution to remove those references — along with the language that allows for forced work.

“I am tired of being treated as a second-class citizen,” Marva Douglas, a member of Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform, the group that forced this year’s vote on a new document, said in a press release last year. “And terms like ‘colored’ that are throughout the Constitution play a part in that feeling.”

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