Colorado voters were asked this election whether they wanted to ban slavery once and for all in the state.
Just under two-thirds of voters supported the ballot measure, Amendment A — 1,452,806 for and 766,281 against. In other contexts, such a electoral margin would represent a resounding victory, but it didn’t feel that way for some.
People like Hassan Latif were left dismayed — if unsurprised — that 35 percent of Colorado rejected an amendment to the state constitution that clarifies slavery and involuntary servitude are illegal in all circumstances.
“I think it says what a lot of the political landscape is echoing across the country,” said Latif, who who runs the Aurora-based Second Chance Center, which works with people re-entering society after jail and prison. “And that is that some people are very comfortable with the way things are and not so much how they should be. … It’s part of people’s ignorance just reflected in their votes against (Amendment A), and it’s very unfortunate that we’re still dealing with the question in 2018.”
Up until Monday, it had been legal as punishment for a crime. And 26 out of Colorado’s 64 counties voted to keep it that way. All of those counties lean Republican and favored Donald Trump in 2016. A Colorado Secretary of State map with a breakdown of how each county voted is here.
Jumoke Emery, the lead organizer for Abolish Slavery Colorado, was “overjoyed” the measure passed, but he was not surprised it was unpopular in certain pockets of the state.
“The fight for freedom and justice in this country has never gone smoothly, and abolishing slavery is clearly no exception,” he said, adding his theories about why so many voted against the measure: “Whether it was folks who were confused about the ballot language, whether it’s people concerned about (Amendment A’s) repercussions for work release programs or community service, or just plain, old-fashioned racism and the desire to continue the institutionalization of slavery in any form — I don’t doubt it was a mixture of any of those reasons.”
It does seem likely that those three reasons were the biggest deterrents for “no” voters on Amendment A.
One of the three — “plain, old-fashioned racism” — Emery confirmed with his own eyes.
On Monday afternoon, Election Day eve, he got a call from his wife, telling him to hurry home from work. Someone or some group, had set a bunch of pro-Amendment A brochures on fire on the front porch of the Emery home in Denver’s Hilltop neighborhood. It was still smoldering when his wife discovered it.
Emery, who is black, likened the incident to a cross-burning.
“This brand of racialized terrorism, and the legacy of slavery and the fear campaigns that were run for decades and continue to be run, haven’t ended,” Emery said. “And it’s important that the nation sees that and understands that in the context of where we are in 2018.”
Police say they’re investigating the incident, though Emery claims the cops only seemed to take interest in the burnt brochures once local media started reporting on it.
Organizers with Abolish Slavery Colorado also observed racism on social media leading up to the election, receiving numerous messages, they say, containing slurs like “monkey” and the N-word.
As to to the issue of ballot language, there’s no doubt some voters didn’t fully understand the measure’s intent, as would be the case with any issue on which 2.3 million people — the latest Colorado voter total — are weighing in on.
But Amendment A’s language was fairly succinct and clear, particularly in comparison to a nearly identical measure’s language in 2016.
This year’s question read: “Shall there be an amendment to the Colorado Constitution that prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime and thereby prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude in all circumstances?”
The passage of this measure removes from the state constitution a provision that remains in the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Organizers behind Amendment A are hoping their example spreads across the country.
When an effort to formally ban slavery in Colorado failed at the ballot box in 2016, many felt the wording was to blame. It read: “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 punishment for persons duly convicted of a crime?”
It failed by a slim margin.
Ahead of the election, The Colorado Independent sought to find out if any public official would actually be opposing Amendment A. Turned out, at least two were: district attorneys from western Colorado said they feared the measure would have the effect of removing community service as a sentencing option for judges.
Both candidates for attorney general — winner Phil Weiser, a Democrat, and Republican George Brauchler — said they didn’t think that concern was substantial enough to warrant a “no” note. Abolish Slavery Colorado said it worked carefully with the state legislature and the ACLU to craft a measure that would not change the viability of community service programs.
The measure also says nothing about paid prison labor programs, which do not appear to be directly affected by Amendment A’s passage. Many Colorado inmates do jobs ranging from cooking to laundry to furniture construction to firefighting, and are often paid about $1 a day for their labor. But those programs, officials say, aren’t going anywhere as a direct result of the measure.
The Independent spoke with party chairmen in three counties that rejected Amendment A, and all three said they didn’t know of anyone who voted against the measure. One of them, Tom Peterson of the Elbert County Republicans, speculated on why 53 percent of his county voted to keep slavery a legal option for criminal punishment.
“Sometimes when you don’t know what something is,” he said, “your default is voting no.”