Posted on August 24, 2022

Yes, Slavery Is on the Ballot in These States

Marsha Mercer, Pew, August 22, 2022

More than 150 years after it was officially outlawed in the United States, slavery will be on the ballot in five states in November, as a new abolitionist movement seeks to reshape prison labor.

Voters in Alabama, Louisiana, Oregon, Tennessee and Vermont will decide on state constitutional amendments prohibiting slavery and involuntary servitude, in some cases except for work by incarcerated peopleAdvocates say the amendments are needed to strip antiquated language from state constitutions and to potentially transform the criminal justice system by making all work in prisons voluntary.

Three states — Colorado, Nebraska and Utah — have approved similar ballot initiatives since 2018.

“This is the crown jewel of criminal justice reform,” said Curtis Ray Davis II, who served 25 years for second-degree murder in the Louisiana State Penitentiary known as Angola and is campaigning for the amendment in Louisiana following his experiences in incarceration.

“Most people believed it was impossible to get the amendment on the ballot in Louisiana, but Louisiana and America should not be in the business of legalized slavery,” he said in an interview.

The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1865, abolished slavery and involuntary servitude in the United States — except as publishment for someone convicted of a crime. The “exception clause” loophole led to repressive 19th-century laws in the South known as Black Codes that allowed authorities to incarcerate Black people for petty crimes, such as vagrancy, and then force them to work. Black Codes were a precursor to the Jim Crow laws outlawed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“We want to remove offensive language and provide protection for citizens from slavery and involuntary servitude,” Max Parthas, co-director of state operations of the Abolish Slavery National Network and co-host of a weekly online radio program, Abolition Today, said in an interview.

Parthas and other proponents also want to remove the exception clause from the 13th Amendment. They hope the stalled effort in Congress will gain momentum once states amend their constitutions.

About 20 state constitutions have exception clauses that allow either slavery or involuntary servitude as punishment for crime. Vermont prides itself on being the first in the nation to ban slavery in 1777, but its constitution allows involuntary servitude in certain circumstances, such as to pay a debt, damage, fine or other cost.

There’s a debate over whether removing the exception clauses in the U.S. Constitution and state constitutions would be largely symbolic, or whether it could lead to significant change in the prison system. Advocates say the symbolism is important, given the shameful historic context, but also that banning involuntary servitude could be a steppingstone to improving the pay and working conditions of incarcerated people.

So far, no state that has passed the amendment has changed its prison work rules, but lawsuits to force changes are likely.


In 2018, Colorado became the first state since Rhode Island in 1842 to ban slavery and involuntary servitude outright. Two years after a ballot initiative with confusing language failed, Coloradans voted 66% to 34% for an amendment reading: “There shall never be in this state either slavery or involuntary servitude.”

Ballot initiatives also have passed with wide margins elsewhere. In 2020, Amendment 1 passed in Nebraska by 68% to 32%, and Amendment C passed in Utah 80% to 20%. Since 2020, bills have been introduced to put slavery or involuntary servitude on the ballot in states including California, Florida, Ohio, New Jersey and Texas.

But after the amendment passed in Colorado, a lawsuit seeking higher wages for prison workers was dismissed. Another lawsuit, seeking to end compulsory prison work, is in state court. Inmates Richard Lilgerose and Harold Mortis in February sued Colorado Democratic Gov. Jared Polis, the executive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections and the agency itself, arguing that the state has continued to compel people in prison to work under conditions amounting to involuntary servitude.