Five years after the Civil War’s end in 1865, the Tennessee Constitution was amended to prohibit slavery–but one exception remained.
“That slavery and involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, are forever prohibited in this state,” Article 1, Section 33 of the Constitution still says.
Now, following years of advocacy and near unanimous and bipartisan support from state lawmakers, Tennessee voters will have the chance to vote that exception out.
“Tennessee voters need to be aware of the proposed Constitutional amendments on the ballot,” said Secretary of State Tre Hargett. “Voters can view the exact ballot language on our website in order to be prepared to make informed voting decisions.”
Amendment 3, which appears on the Nov. 8 state and federal general election ballot, would replace the Tennessee Constitution’s conditional ban on slavery that has lingered for more than 150 years with unequivocal language that says: “slavery and involuntary servitude are forever prohibited in this State.”
The measure received overwhelming support from Republican and Democratic lawmakers. At the request of the Department of Correction, a second sentence was added: “Nothing in this section shall prohibit an inmate from working when the inmate has been duly convicted of a crime.”
Proposed Constitutional amendments are presented as yes or no questions. A yes vote is a vote to amend the Constitution and adopt the proposed language in the amendment. A no vote is a vote not to amend the Constitution and keep the current language in the Constitution unchanged.
Two things must happen for an amendment to pass and become part of the Constitution. The first is the amendment must get more yes votes than no votes. The second is that the number of yes votes must be a majority of the total votes in the gubernatorial election.
This longstanding process Tennessee uses to determine the result for proposed Constitutional amendments was confirmed by a court decision following the 2014 general election.
To determine the number of votes needed to adopt a proposed Constitutional amendment, votes for all candidates for governor are added together and then divided by two. If there are more yes votes than no votes on the proposed amendment and the number of yes votes exceeds 50% +1 of the total votes for governor, the amendment passes and becomes part of the Constitution.
The Constitutional amendment fails if the number of yes votes does not meet or exceed the threshold, or if there are more no votes than yes votes.
Three other proposed amendments to the Tennessee Constitution, which were approved to appear on the Nov. 8 ballot by the 111th and 112th General Assemblies, are: An amendment to Article XI, of the Constitution of Tennessee, relative to the right to work; an amendment to Article II and Article III of the Constitution of Tennessee, relative to the exercise of the powers and duties of the Governor during disability; and an amendment to Article IX, of the Constitution of Tennessee, relative to disqualifications.
On the ballot, voters will see the candidates for governor, followed by the four proposed amendments, the United States House of Representatives and the county’s remaining offices on the general election ballot.
Organizers of the “Vote Yes on 3” campaign say it is long overdue to commemorate the promise of abolition in Tennessee’s foundational legal document.
“We rejected slavery in 1865. Why are we still holding onto the vestiges of a time whose values we no longer hold?” said Theeda Murphy, a chief organizer of the Yes on 3 campaign. “Words matter.”
Members of the Vote Yes on 3 Advisory Board include Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly, former state Sen. Bob Corker and Tennessee Democratic Party Chair Hendrell Remus, among others.
Nine other state constitutions contain language that prohibit slavery with exceptions for criminal punishments. Six states, including Tennessee, have measures on their ballots this year that would eliminate that language, Murphy said. The others are Vermont, California, Oregon, Alabama and Louisiana.
For more information about the proposed Tennessee Constitutional amendments, visit sos.tn.gov/amendments or call the Division of Elections at 877-850-4959.
To download and view a Hamilton County generic sample ballot, which has the proposed Tennessee Constitutional amendments and the contests for the entire election, click the link below: