In a disappointing election for many Colorado civil rights advocates, Amendment T’s potential failure is an unexpected twist of the knife.
The measure, which would remove from the state constitution an exception to Colorado’s ban on slavery for people convicted of a crime, is at 50.84 percent against and 49.16 percent in favor — a difference of about 40,000 votes — as of this posting. Ballots from Denver are still being counted, which likely will close the gap, but the possibility of a late surge is of little comfort to proponents certain the measure would sail through.
“I’m just really in utter shock,” said Rep. Joe Salazar, who shepherded Amendment T through the legislature.
The General Assembly referred Amendment T to the ballot in a rare unanimous vote. Together Colorado and the Denver Ministerial Alliance, its primary advocates, kicked off the campaign to pass the amendment in an August rally that included both Democrats and Republicans.
Salazar and others are considering the possibility that voters just didn’t understand the ballot language. It reads: “Shall there be an amendment to the Colorado constitution concerning the removal of the exception to the prohibition of slavery and involuntary servitude when used as a punishment for persons duly convicted of a crime?”
Some are considering whether voters thought that a “Yes” vote meant, “Yes, there should be an exception to the slavery prohibition.” Salazar said a constituent called him a few days before the election asking for a clearer explanation. She later told him she might have voted no if he hadn’t picked up.
Salazar also lamented that Yes on T did not have the financial resources to communicate effectively with voters.
“Even one commercial would have been great,” he said, sighing. “‘We don’t tolerate slavery in the state of Colorado.’ Something like that would have gone a long way.”
The amendment also was placed on a crowded ballot with multiple complicated measures, closely contested Congressional races, state races and an extraordinarily contentious presidential election all competing for voters’ attention. Salazar thinks it’s possible that voters became exhausted by the clamor of the campaigns.
Based on unofficial undervote reports, that seems like a real possibility. Numbers from the Secretary of State’s office show that about 200,000 Coloradans submitted a ballot without voting on Amendment T. The amendment is currently losing by about one-fifth that amount.
Voters also may have incorrectly thought Amendment T would adversely affect prison labor and community service programs. Will Dickerson, an organizer at Together Colorado, a central organization to the Yes on T campaign, said that when Salazar and then-Sen. Jesse Ulibarri began floating the measure, they were met with some concern that it would complicate community service sentences.
So, Dickerson said, Ulibarri did some research and determined that the amendment would have no effect on those programs since community service is an alternative to jail time, and convicted people are free to choose jail time instead.
“So, really, this conversation is about the statement to the world around how Colorado views slavery,” Dickerson said. “It’s asking the question, ‘Is slavery ever OK?’”
Amendment T may be symbolic, but for some of its advocates, its role was as a precursor to more materially consequential work.
Tammy Garrett-Williams is CEO of the Above Waters Project, an organization that supports currently and formerly incarcerated people. She was once incarcerated and believes the criminal justice system is, in fact, slavery in its modern form.
She argued that not only does the justice system dictate the boundaries of prisoners’ lives while they serve their sentences, it imposes firm restrictions on their lives after they are released. Depending on the state, formerly incarcerated people in the United States are ineligible for affordable housing, food stamps, jobs and myriad other pillars of modern life.
“Our society does use slavery for [those who are or have been incarcerated] ,” she said. “We don’t deserve anything. We don’t deserve to have a job. We don’t deserve to live in a nice apartment, we deserve to go back to the slums.”
Garrett-Williams said that her hope was that once Amendment T passed, she and other organizers could connect it to more direct criminal justice reform.
And then there’s also the unconventional president-elect Donald Trump. Salazar thinks the racial themes Trump incorporated in his campaign may have influenced the vote.
He spent the day after the election on the phone with parents who were worried about their kids’ safety. He said kids are telling their Latino classmates they are going to be deported. Salazar, who is Latino, said he and his daughters got derisive looks from people with Trump hats on in a store on Wednesday.
“I guess that’s the country we live in now,” Salazar said. “Maybe Amendment T was a casualty of that.”
Photo Credit: Erich Ferdinand, Creative Commons, Flickr