Colorado voters approved an amendment to their state’s constitution yesterday in a bid to finish a political fight started over 150 years ago: abolishing slavery.
Colorado’s Amendment A, which passed with about 65% in favor and 35% against, removed language from the state’s constitution banning slavery and involuntary servitude “except as punishment for crime,” NPR reports. Article II, Section 26 of the Colorado Constitution will now simply read: “There shall never be in this state either slavery or involuntary servitude.”
This year’s midterm wasn’t Colorado voters’ first opportunity to clarify the state’s stance on slavery. In 2016, a similar ballot measure failed after voters complained that the amendment’s language was confusing.
Colorado’s constitution isn’t the only one to include the archaic “punishment” caveat.
The U.S. Constitution’s 13th Amendment, which was ratified in 1865, also includes a provision for forced labor “as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” In the wake of the Civil War, that “loophole” was widely exploited to arrest former slaves and subject them to forced labor, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. The practice, known as “convict leasing,” persisted until 1941 when it was finally abolished by executive order under President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
While Colorado’s amendment may be largely symbolic, it “guarantees that language around ‘exceptions’ will never be used or abused in the future,” according to Abolish Slavery Colorado, one of the proponents of the amendment.
But the change wasn’t unanimously supported. Over 570,000 people “no” on Tuesday, according to the Denver Post. Opponents argued the amendment could create uncertainty around prison work programs, which see convicts in the state’s prisons contracted to scan license plates at highway tolls, tame wild horses and fight wildfires. The amendment’s advocates countered that prison work programs would not be affected because inmates have to volunteer to participate, according to NPR.
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