(WASHINGTON) — Slavery was on some ballots this Election Day, and voters in several states on Tuesday were in favor of officially removing language that allows slavery as a form of criminal punishment from their state constitutions.
However, not all of the states with slavery on the ballot voted in favor of its removal – and it seems the language on the Louisiana ballot may have led to some confusion, activists told ABC News.
Louisiana voters turned down a ballot measure to remove language from the state constitution that permits slavery as a form of punishment for criminal convictions.
The question on the ballot read, “Do you support an amendment to prohibit the use of involuntary servitude except as it applies to the otherwise lawful administration of criminal justice?”
To vote yes, the ballot measure should have been a vote to remove the pro-slavery exception for criminal punishment, but its language could lead to multiple conclusions, according to one person who helped draft the bill.
Louisiana State Representative Edmond Jordan said the re-worded ballot measure led to confusion for many voters as to whether they were voting for or against the exception.
In a statement to local news station WAFB, Jordan said “The way that the ballot language is stated is confusing. And the way that it was drafted, it could lead to multiple different conclusions or opinions. 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.”
“I believe Louisiana residents would have abolished slavery had the confusion not existed, in the same way their neighbors in Alabama and Tennessee did, with some clarifications,” Biance Tylek, the executive director of criminal justice advocacy organization Worth Rises, told ABC News.
Vermont and Tennessee voters approved changes to their constitutional language, while Alabama voters approved the removal of several Jim Crow-era sections of their constitution, including one that allowed for slavery as criminal punishment, one that barred interracial marriage and one that separated schools for white and Black students.
The Oregon ballot initiative, which is projected to have passed, also proposed removing such language from the state constitution.
On top of that, the measure would add language that authorizes an Oregon court, or a probation or parole agency to order alternatives to incarceration for a convicted individual as part of their sentencing.
These ballot measures came at the backing of activists like Keisha Deonarine, the director of Opportunity, Race, and Justice at the civil rights organization NAACP, and Tylek, who says that these changes are “long overdue.”
“We didn’t abolish slavery, we just moved it behind barbed wire and concrete walls where no one can see it,” Tylek said. “The original sin of our nation is still very much ongoing.”
Those supporting these measures said prison labor is exploitative and hails from slavery-era punishment. Activists said there is much more to do in creating fair labor conditions for incarcerated people.
For example, an ACLU analysis of prison wages found that the average prison wage is about 52 cents per hour. However, some workers make pennies per hour, meaning that basic needs can take days of work to afford. The ACLU’s analysis, which includes analysis from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, also found that incarcerated people reported feeling unsafe while working, being forced to work, or facing additional punishment while working.
“We have the ability to change our systems,” Deonarine told ABC News. “We are still benefitting from, economically and politically, the opportunities in this country built on the backs of slaves.”
In total, seven states have made such changes to their constitutions, including Utah, Colorado, and Nebraska. And activists are fighting for similar ballot measures to either add an anti-slavery amendment or adjust constitutional language in more than 24 states, Tylek said.
In New York, the slavery abolishment coalition 13th Forward Campaign is calling on lawmakers to support legislation that would add an abolition amendment to New York’s constitution, as well as ensure that there are labor rights and protections for incarcerated people.
“It is long overdue for New York to end our 200-year history of exploitation and dehumanization in our prison system,” a statement from the 13th Forward Campaign to ABC News said. “A system which relies on forced labor and denies workers fair wages and basic rights should not exist, period.”
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