Tuesday was a great night for prison reform advocates, as four states approved ballot measures banning slavery or indentured servitude as punishment for a crime.
Voters in Alabama, Tennessee, Vermont, and Oregon approved measures prohibiting the practice. A similar measure in Louisiana—which some prison-labor advocates argued was poorly worded and likely to create further issues—failed. Such solid victories, even in red states, show that a narrow criminal justice issue can be broadly popular with voters.
In Alabama, 76 percent voters, as of Wednesday morning, supported a measure to remove language in the state constitution that allowed slavery and involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime. This question was part of a broad ballot measure, the Alabama Recompiled Constitution Ratification Question, which sought to reorganize the state's notoriously messy constitution, as well as "[remove] racist language," including the state's slavery exception.
In Tennessee and Vermont, ballot measures deleting those states' slavery exceptions also passed handily—with the vote count on Wednesday morning showing nearly 80 and 90 percent support, respectively. A measure in Oregon, also removing an exception to the state's anti-slavery constitutional provision, passed with a much slimmer majority, despite no formal "vote no" campaign.
While Louisiana's anti-slavery measure failed, prison reformers didn't want it to pass. The ballot measure would've removed language from the state's construction permitting "involuntary servitude" as punishment for a crime and replaced it with language saying that the state constitution's ban on slavery and involuntary servitude "does not apply to the otherwise lawful administration of criminal justice." The measure thus appeared to supplant one slavery exception for another.
"The way that the ballot language is stated is confusing," Louisiana State Rep. Edmond Jordan (D–29), who introduced the proposed amendment, said in a statement to KSLA News 12. "Because of the ambiguity of how it was drafted, I'm asking that people vote against it so that we can go and clean it up with the intent of bringing it back next year and making sure that the language is clear and unambiguous." The no votes were leading with 60 percent as of Wednesday morning.
While involuntary servitude for the incarcerated is federally legal under the 13th Amendment, several states have banned the practice since 2018. While prison labor is an $11 billion industry, the success of anti-slavery ballot measures shows that voters do not see forced labor as just.