It seemed like a no-brainer: Colorado’s voters were asked to eliminate an archaic and offensive reference to slavery as a punishment for a crime in the state Constitution. But a week after the vote, the poorly-written amendment is on the cusp of failing, and a lack of clarity from lawmakers may be to blame. Adopted before President Ulysses S. Grant proclaimed Colorado a state in 1876, the constitution declares: “There shall never be in this state either slavery or involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime.” That language mirrors the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that outlawed slavery in 1865. Both chambers of Colorado’s Legislature voted unanimously to refer Amendment T to voters. But it appeared on a state-issued voter’s guide under the title, “No Exception to Involuntary Servitude Prohibition.” The actual ballot question wasn’t much clearer. Not only that: The voter guide included arguments against the measure, even though there was no organized opposition.
“One of the real problems I had is the way it was written. It became a hurtful language issue for those of us who are personally connected to it,” said Lee McNeil of Denver’s Shorter Community A.M.E. Church, whose great-grandmother, Easter Noble Hampton, was brought as a baby to Virginia on a slave ship.
Hampton worked as a cook on a Texas plantation; her husband, Tobe Hampton, was a sharecropper. “This is hurtful,” McNeil said. “It’s 2016. Slavery was supposed to have been done with in 1865.”
The phantom argument — state law requires that some counterpoint be included — was that a change could trigger lawsuits from prison inmates who may face delayed probation or loss of privileges for refusing work assignments or for earning low wages.