4 Out of 5 US States Voted Anti-Slavery in the Midterms

Slavery was on the ballot in 5 states in 2022, as some voters moved to put limits on forced prison labor.
A prisoner walks thru a fenced section toward a guard tower at Angola Prison .
A prisoner walks thru a fenced section toward a guard tower at Angola Prison . (Photo by Giles Clarke/Getty Images)

Five states across the U.S. had the issue of slavery on the ballot in Tuesday’s midterm elections, and in all but one of those places, the anti-slavery vote is set to prevail.

While it may come as a shock that slavery is still technically legal more than 150 years after the end of the Civil War, the practice of forced labor remains widespread in American prisons. Prison labor is expressly protected by the 13th Amendment, which prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude “except as a punishment for crime.” Nearly 20 states still have language in their constitutions to enshrine forced labor in prisons, with incarcerated men and women working for as little as 13 cents an hour while making billions worth of goods. 

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On Tuesday, voters in Alabama, Tennessee, and Vermont approved measures to limit prison labor, with a fourth state, Oregon, likely to follow but with the outcome still undetermined as of early Wednesday morning, according to the Associated Press

Louisiana was the lone pro-slavery state, with voters rejecting a constitutional amendment to curb the use of involuntary servitude in state jails and prisons. Louisiana has one of the most  notorious prison labor systems in the country, with its maximum-security state prison in Angola operating as a work camp on what was once an 8,000-acre cotton plantation manned by slaves.

The initiatives that passed in the other states won’t take effect immediately, as the AP noted, and there will likely be legal challenges, but the victories are an encouraging trend for those fighting to amend the 13th Amendment and ultimately ban forced labor nationwide. 

“Voters in Oregon and other states have come together across party lines to say that this stain must be removed from state constitutions,” Oregon’s Senate Democrat Jeff Merkley told the AP. “Now, it is time for all Americans to come together and say that it must be struck from the U.S. Constitution. There should be no exceptions to a ban on slavery.”

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Constitutional amendments must be ratified by three-fourths of states, so the national campaign to end forced labor faces an uphill battle. But state-level efforts have been successful, with Colorado passing the first anti-slavery language in 2018, then Nebraska and Utah following in 2020.

Prisoners work as cooks, landscapers, teachers, and in many other capacities in local, state, and federal prisons across the U.S., with the average wage maxing out at 52 cents per hour. Even dangerous jobs like fighting wildfires in California are not compensated with minimum wage, and the workers face barriers to continue in those careers after they are released.

The defeat of Louisiana’s initiative came amid criticism that the measure risked making the situation worse for the state’s prisoners, since the proposed change in wording would have seemingly permitted slavery and involuntary servitude to continue in certain circumstances.

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Louisiana’s constitution currently says: “Slavery and involuntary servitude are prohibited, except in the latter case as punishment for a crime.” The proposed amendment would have prohibited those practices, but left a loophole saying the restriction would not “apply to the otherwise lawful administration of criminal justice.”

Even one of the Democratic representatives who sponsored Louisiana’s proposal publicly disavowed the plan and urged voters to reject it because of the confusing language.

The local advocacy organization Council for a Better Louisiana was also opposed. "This amendment is an example of why it is so important to get the language right when presenting constitutional amendments to voters," the group said.