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Colorado Narrowly Rejects Ballot Measure to End Slavery as Punishment for Crime

by Matt Clarke

In November 8, 2016, Colorado voters rejected a ballot measure that would have amended the state constitution to remove 140-year-old language allowing slavery and involuntary servitude as punishment for crime. The removal of the exception to the constitution’s general prohibition against slavery and involuntary servitude was rejected by a margin of 16,685 votes, less than 1% of the 2,576,759 votes cast to decide the measure, known as Amendment T.

Amendment T was pushed by Together Colorado, a non-partisan, multi-racial, multi-faith group that had the support of the League of Women Voters Colorado, the ACLU, major newspapers in the state and various religious organizations. The ballot measure was sponsored in the Colorado legislature by state Senator Jessie Ulibarri and Representatives Jovan Melton and Joseph Salazar. Proponents received over $91,000 in donations compared to no contributions to opponents of the amendment.

Will Dickerson, lead organizer for Together Colorado, said he believed the majority of the “no” votes came from people who were confused by the wording of the issue on the ballot. Those who do not understand a ballot measure tend to vote “no,” according to Richard B. Collins, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Colorado Law School.

“The language was so confusing,” said Colorado Secretary of State’s Office spokeswoman Lynn Bartels. “My own sister called me and said, ‘I’m a no vote, right? Because I don’t want slavery.’ And I said, ‘No, you’re a yes vote.’”

The relevant part of the state constitution, Article II, Section 26, reads: “There shall never be in this state either slavery or involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted” – language that mirrors the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which has been adopted in a number of other states. Amendment T would have removed the exception for “as punishment for crime.”

Despite a lack of organized opposition, the state voter guide included arguments against the ballot measure, saying it could undermine the legal structure that permits prisoner labor and community service. Supporters disagreed.

Jim Liske, former president of Prison Fellowship, has been calling for a national dialogue on the 13th Amendment’s exception clause since 2014.

“As long as it remains in the Constitution, the punishment clause is an offensive vestige of the legacy of dehumanizing and often racist practices in the American criminal justice system,” he wrote.

Rep. Melton said he would reintroduce the measure with revised language within the next two years. Thus far, there have been no serious efforts to remove the exception clause of the 13th Amendment from the U.S. Constitution. 


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