Colorado ballot measure would remove 'slavery' from state constitution

One-hundred-and-fifty-five years after the Emancipation Proclamation, “slavery” still exists on the books in Colorado – sort of.

Buried in the Centennial State’s 1876 constitution is a provision that technically permits a person to be sentenced to slavery or indentured servitude if convicted of a crime. The archaic language has rankled lawmakers and voters for years -- and in November, Coloradans will have the chance to strike the language for good.

A ballot measure, known as Amendment A, has been certified for the November ballot by the Colorado legislature. It aims to scrub the language by clarifying the wording of a similar initiative that was defeated in 2016, amid apparent confusion over the text.

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“I believe that this is going to get passed and for the reasons that appear on the ballot,” said Kamau Allen, an organizer at Abolish Slavery Colorado.

Colorado is hardly alone in having this language on the books. Almost identical in its phrasing – and certainly in sentiment – to the 13th Amendment, Colorado’s constitution currently states that: “There shall never be in this state either slavery or involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime.”

The exception for those convicted of a crime is what has residents concerned -- though the “slavery or involuntary servitude” mentioned in the state constitution refers more to penal labor like stamping license plates, working in the kitchen and other jobs that inmates are tasked with and not compensated for.

Still, in Colorado -- and most states outside of Alabama, Georgia, Texas and a few others -- inmates are currently compensated for the work they do, though not a lot. Pay is between $0.84 and $1.75 per day.

Amendment A is more about changing the language to remove the slavery reference than about actual prison reform.

“This won’t have a direct impact on prison reform or how inmates are treated,” Allen said. “But it is definitely more impactful than removing something like a Confederate monument, because this will actually change the text of a living document.”

The failure to pass the 2016 amendment that sought to scrap the same exception – and also enjoyed wide bipartisan support from lawmakers in Denver – has been blamed on the way the ballot measure was written.

“Shall there be an amendment to the Colorado constitution concerning the removal of the exception to the prohibition of slavery and involuntary servitude when used as punishment for persons duly convicted of a crime?” the ballot measure stated.

The wording led to widespread confusion, with post-election data indicating that many voters just left the question blank on their ballots and declined to answer. The no votes eventually garnered 50.2 percent compared to 49.7 percent for yes.

“The language is so confusing,” said Lynn Bartels, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office, told the Denver Post after the election. “…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.'”

To make sure there is no confusion this time around, lawmakers have put on the ballot the entirety of Section 26 of Article II of the state’s constitution with “except as a punishment for crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted” struck through in the text. It will then ask voters to answer yes or no to whether the text should be deleted.

“Two years ago we lost by a slim margin and it was because of the language on the ballot and the placing on the ballot,” Allen said. “This time around, I don’t see that happening.”

Allen also said that with similar language in the constitutions on numerous states – and in the 13th Amendment – he believes that passing this ballot measure in Colorado could spur changes elsewhere.

“This could be a watershed moment for changing the language of the 13th Amendment,” he said.