It may come as a surprise to many Coloradans that there is a provision within the state constitution that allows for slavery or involuntary servitude as a punishment for a crime.
Amendment A on this year’s ballot aims to change that. If Coloradans pass the measure on November 6, it will remove the provision under Article II, Section 26 of the Colorado Constitution that allows for slavery as a punishment.
Those who voted in 2016 may recall that there was a similar measure on that year’s ballot, which ended up not passing — thereby maintaining the slavery provision — by a margin of less than 1 percent (and less than 20,000 votes). After the fact, legislators and proponents of the amendment came to the consensus that the ballot language in 2016 was so confusing that many voters didn’t realize that they were actually voting against abolishing slavery in Colorado.
As in 2016, the state legislature unanimously approved Amendment A for the ballot so voters could choose to remove the slavery provision in the state constitution. Only this year, there's been a concerted effort to ensure that the ballot language is much clearer.
The only counter-argument to removing the clause that allows for slavery and involuntary servitude as a punishment for a crime is that it may cause uncertainty around offender work programs, such as those used in prisons. But the organizers behind A note on their website, “There are 23 other states who have no language involving slavery or involuntary servitude in their Constitutions whatsoever, and they have [work programs and community service programs] in their departments of corrections.”
With two weeks left until Election Day, we spoke to one of the organizers with the Abolish Slavery Colorado coalition. Jumoke Emery has been involved with the effort since 2015, and says that the coalition involves nonprofit partners such as the ACLU of Colorado and Together Colorado. Here's our conversation with Emery:
Westword: In your words, why is passing Amendment A important?
Jumoke Emery: Here in the land of the free, in the Centennial State, there's no reason for slavery as punishment to still be enshrined in our law. However we feel about the criminal justice system, whether we feel like it's doing a great job or a bad job, we don't want our criminal justice system to be slavery.
With the disappointing result from 2016 in mind, how confident is the coalition about the amendment passing this year?
Raising awareness about this is priority number one. As far as we can reach throughout the state, as many folks as we can reach in every county possible from Denver to Weld, we believe that the more Coloradans know about this, the more Coloradans will be willing to vote yes.
How much was wording a concern this year, given what happened in 2016?
Wording was a huge concern. For us, we want to believe that most Coloradans didn't actively vote to maintain slavery in our state constitution last election [in 2016]. So going forward with that belief, we put a lot of work into getting clearer wording into the blue book. We've been highly involved, since before the election cycle began, in making sure that this year, it's very clear that a "yes" on A is a yes to abolish slavery.
Do you know how the language got so confusing last time?
It's a long story. There are certain rules in terms of how things appear on the ballot, and that was our first go-around; we were new at this. We were so happy to get there in the first place that we didn't realize how big of a problem that would be. Last time, the language was like, “Do you not not not want to have slavery?" I believe it was a triple negative.
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Has there been any opposition to Amendment A?
There has not been organized opposition. We've seen a couple negative op-eds, folks who we believe are mistakenly informed about the impact that this would have, but we haven't had anybody organize against us openly.
There are at least fifteen other states that clearly make an allowance for slavery in their state constitutions. Of those, Colorado would be the first state to amend its constitution to remove that allowance. If this passes, do you hope it will have a ripple effect in other parts of the country?
There are other states that have tried before but failed, so if we were successful, we'd be the first state to remove this language. We hope this passes and is the first step of many to removing the harmful legacies of slavery [throughout] the land of the free.