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Slavery is on the ballot in Tennessee
It's not right or left. It's right or wrong.
Five years after the Civil War’s end, the Tennessee Constitution was amended to prohibit slavery — but one exception remained:
“That slavery and involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, are forever prohibited in this state,” Article 1, Section 33 of the Constitution still says.
This upcoming election Tennessee voters will have the chance to vote that exception out. Amendment 3 — which will appear on the ballot November 8 — would replace the nearly two century old language with: “Slavery and involuntary servitude are forever prohibited.”
Voting yes will amend the Tennessee Constitution, and voting no will preserve the exception.
“This isn’t about right or left,” Tennessee State House Representative Joe Towns (D —Memphis), the sponsor of the House resolution, says. “This is about right or wrong.”
“Every voter in Tennessee can help us move a step closer toward reconciling the consequences of the slavery exception by voting “YES” on Amendment 3,” Raumesh Akbari (D — Memphis), the sponsor of the Senate resolution, says.
It should be noted that Towns and Akbari, the Senate sponsor, will be the first African American legislators in Tennessee history to have an amendment on the ballot. He and organizers of the aptly named “Vote Yes on 3” campaign say “words matter” and “its time to abolish slavery” once and for all.
“We abolished slavery more than 150 years ago,” Theeda Murphy, a co-organizer of the Yes on 3 campaign says. “There is no reason this language should still be lingering in our constitution.”
Nine other state constitutions contain language that prohibit slavery with exceptions for criminal punishments, explains Murphy. In addition to Tennessee, five states — Vermont, California, Oregon, Alabama and Louisiana — have measures on their ballots this year that would eliminate exceptions.
Tennessee’s constitutional amendment process takes years.
“A proposed amendment must first pass by a majority in the House and Senate, in the two-year General Assembly, and then pass by at least two-thirds of the vote in the next,” explains Towns. “The amendment then goes before voters in the next gubernatorial election.”
Both Democrats and Republicans have come out to support the initiative. Companies like Jack Daniels Distillery —who donated $50,000 to the campaign —have also promoted the passage of the amendment.
At the request of the Department of Correction, a second sentence was added: “Nothing in this section shall prohibit an inmate from working when the inmate has been duly convicted of a crime.”
“My colleagues and I don’t agree on a lot, but this isn’t about politics,” Towns explains. “This is about people. This is one of those rare, beautiful and bipartisan occasions where we are united.”