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Colorado ballot includes measure to ban slavery

October 19, 2016 Updated: October 19, 2016 at 5:16 pm
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photo - Colorado State Capitol
Colorado State Capitol  

Among the hotly contested issues crowding the November ballot is a not-so-controversial measure that would close the loophole in the Colorado Constitution that allows slavery.

Amendment T, voted onto the ballot unanimously by both chambers of the Colorado General Assembly last session, would remove the exception clause from the section of the constitution that prohibits slavery or involuntary servitude "except as a punishment for crime."

"We should have made this change a long, long time ago," said advocate Jumoke Emery, who worked with faith-based organization Together Colorado to get the amendment on the ballot. "I don't think that most Coloradoans wants to live in a society where legal slavery is justified and codified within our laws."

While some states have similar exception clauses, 25 state constitutions do not mention slavery or involuntary servitude. Proponents of tweaking the phrasing in Colorado's constitution, which mirrors the language used in the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, say it's a way for the state to set a positive example and encourage a similar change to be made at the federal level.

"Colorado has been a leader in many areas," said the Rev. Stephanie Rose, a pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church and professor of women's and ethnic studies at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. "As a resident in this state, I would hope that we continue to lead the pack for others to recognize what human dignity looks like."

The measure has garnered endorsements from local chapters of organizations covering a variety of issue agendas, including the Sierra Club, AFL-CIO, American Civil Liberties Union and League of Women Voters. No one has openly opposed the measure.

"In a time where there are many tensions around race relations, it's symbolically important," said Nathan Woodliff-Stanley, executive director of the ACLU of Colorado. "I'd be very shocked and disappointed if the people of Colorado voted to keep slavery in our state constitution."

According to the state's Blue Book, a voter guide published by the Legislative Council that lists arguments both for and against amendments, removing the exception clause could have effects on prison work programs, community service requirements or probation conditions if offenders refused to comply.

But other states with constitutions that don't mention slavery or involuntary servitude haven't experienced these problems, said Will Dickerson, a community organizer with Together Colorado.

"There's many other ways we can hold people accountable - and do hold people accountable - and slavery should not be one of them," Dickerson said. "It's really about removing archaic language and helping to heal racial divides."

Historically, the state was more of a home for freed slaves than slave owners. Even before Colorado entered the Union as a free state in 1876, reported cases of slavery were rare, said Matt Mayberry, director of the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum.

"The culture of Colorado was as a free-soil state," Mayberry said. "We were a Republican state, and the Republican Party grew out of abolitionist causes and efforts."

The "No Slavery No Exceptions" committee, formed by Together Colorado to campaign for the amendment, has raised more than $35,000 from individual donors, according to the Secretary of State's Office. Much of the sum comes from a Boulder woman, who has donated $31,000.

State Sen. Kent Lambert, a Colorado Springs Republican who gathered with other supporters on the west steps of the Capitol when the amendment campaign kicked off in August, said the change is a needed update to the state's constitution.

"That is Civil War-era language," Lambert said. "It's important that we don't communicate that slavery is OK in any condition."

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Contact Rachel Riley: 636-0108

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