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Louisiana voters rejected an antislavery ballot measure. The reasons are complicated

Out of five states that put measures to voters on the subject, Louisiana voters were the only ones to vote against banning slavery and involuntary servitude in the state constitution, according to calls by The Associated Press. This year, in Vermont, Oregon, Alabama and Tennessee, voters decided to ban slavery and involuntary servitude.

The United States abolished slavery in 1865 with the 13th Amendment. But it makes an exception for slavery as "punishment for crime." Many states followed suit with similar exception clauses to individual state constitutions.

In Colorado in 2018, voters approved a ballot measure to fully ban slavery – no exceptions – in the state's constitution. Before that, only Rhode Island explicitly forbade the use of slavery and involuntary servitude, nearly 200 years ago.

Nebraska and Utah joined Colorado in 2020. Once this year's results are reflected in states' constitutions, eight states will explicitly forbid slavery and involuntary servitude.

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Voter confusion in Louisiana

In Louisiana, supporters of the amendment say the wording in the ballot question was confusing enough that voters didn't understand what they were deciding for or against. The question asked voters if they supported an amendment to prohibit involuntary servitude "except as it applies to the otherwise lawful administration of criminal justice."

"The confusion led voters to a conclusion that didn't serve our state," says Ashley Shelton, the president and CEO of the Power Coalition for Equity and Justice, a civic engagement organization in Louisiana.

"I can name so many amendments over the years that have undermined the voters' ability to actually vote in their own interests because they don't understand it," Shelton says.

The sponsor of the amendment himself, state Rep. Edmond Jordan, a Democrat, ultimately opposed it due to changes in the text that he said would have expanded the state's ability to use slavery or involuntary servitude as a punishment, according to reporting by member station WRKF.

Opponents of such amendments have said they would affect sentencing statutes or interfere with the ability of prisons and jails to run reformative programs. The Oregon State Sheriffs' Association said it could not support the state's measure because it created "unintended consequences for Oregon Jails that will result in the elimination of all reformative programs and increased costs to local jail operations." That was included in Oregon's voter pamphlet.

Curtis Ray Davis II, who is the executive director of Decarcerate Louisiana, an organization that works to protect prisoners from dangerous labor conditions and that supported Amendment 7, says he could have used the language in the proposed amendment in Louisiana to advocate for better treatment for himself and other prisoners when he was incarcerated in Louisiana.

He says the prohibition of slavery and involuntary servitude in the constitution would have given him the legal basis to ask the courts, "Have I been manumitted from something beneath human credibility to now real human citizenship in the United States?" If so, "They couldn't treat us the same way anymore."

Will Louisiana voters get another chance?

Ashley Shelton of the Power Coalition says the question needs to be put in front of voters again. State Rep. Edmond Jordan says he intends to do just that.

Louisiana wouldn't be the first state to need multiple tries to pass such a measure. Colorado's first attempt to pass a similar measure in 2016 failed due to unclear language, and voters approved it when asked more clearly in 2018.

Davis says he is pessimistic about the chances of getting this issue back on the ballot next year but that he hopes voters get the chance to vote on a clear question. He says the reason the bill introducing the amendment was able to pass unanimously was because the vote took place soon after the Buffalo shooting, in which a white gunman killed 10 people and injured three more, most of whom were Black, in a supermarket.

"Nobody would vote against it. Not at that space and time. So we luckily got through the legislature to put this on the ballot for the people to decide," Davis says.

He is calling for corporations that put their weight behind a "no" vote, including Ben and Jerry's, "to help us clean it up," and for all Americans to turn their attention to the 13th Amendment. Democrats in the U.S. House and Senate introduced an "abolition amendment" to remove the exception clause, so far to no avail.

Amendments across the country

In states that have passed measures removing exceptions, there haven't been immediate or sweeping changes to prison labor practices. Utah, Tennessee and Oregon have included language clarifying what kind of prison work is still allowed in order to avoid lawsuits or increase the measures' likelihood of passing.

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Advocates, including Sandy Chung, Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, say the changes are still important and will impact incarcerated people's lives.

"This sends a clear message that slavery is wrong for any reason, for any person, including incarcerated individuals," Chung says of the approval of Oregon's ballot measure. She says people in Oregon prisons have told the ACLU that some corrections employees would treat them poorly, "and then say things like, 'Well, the law considers you a slave.' "

Oregon's ballot measure passed more narrowly than some of the others, with about 44% of voters opposing it. Chung says that was probably attributable to a "fundamental lack of understanding about the prison system and criminal legal system" among voters.

Organizers in several more states are working toward getting similar measures on the ballot in 2024.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Kaitlyn Radde