More than 150 years after it was officially outlawed, the US is still attempting to fully eliminate slavery through ballot initiatives and amend state constitutions allowing the practice as a form of punishment for a crime.

Voters in five US states — Vermont, Tennessee, Oregon, Alabama and Louisiana — have been presented with a ballot question on Tuesday that gave them the option to remove exceptions for slavery in their constitutions.

But didn't the US Congress abolish slavery in 1865 with the ratification of the 13th amendment?

Not exactly. 

The infamous 13th amendment stated that "neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction".

In other words, the amendment still permits slavery, involuntary servitude or both as a punishment for crimes across the country. 

Not even a year after the 13th amendment took effect, some states began to take advantage of this exception clause with Black Codes that criminalised things like "vagrancy" and "walking without purpose".

Black Codes were a precursor to the Jim Crow, a declaration that enforced racial segregation in the Southern United States, outlawed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

To this day, critics argue they have allowed widespread abuse to flourish in the criminal justice system. And up until this year's 2022 midterm elections, around 19 states continued to allow this exception to pass by.

To update the actual amendment, two-thirds of both chambers of Congress and three-fourths of state legislatures must agree. 

And while congressional Democrats have attempted to amend the exception in recent years, their efforts have been unsuccessful.

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Divided states of America

Instead, some states have been taking matters into their own hands with amendments that either explicitly rule out slavery and indentured servitude as punishment options or remove the terms from state law altogether. 

But progress is slow. For example, despite Vermont priding itself on being the first state to ban slavery in 1777, its residents only just voted to revise the constitution in 2022. 

Over 89 percent voted "yes" on Tuesday to the text stating "slavery and indentured servitude in any form are prohibited."

Similarly, a majority of voters in Tennessee, Alabama and Oregon seem to have approved the revision of their own constitutions but with varying degrees of support and generally low turnout.

More than 5 million people make up Tennessee's voting-eligible population, but only around a fifth of them cast their ballots. Of this, results currently show around 80 percent voted in support of the amendment to “forever prohibit” slavery and indentured servitude and around 20 percent voted against it.

Meanwhile, in Alabama, current results indicate that around 77 percent of voters supported the change while 23 percent did not. And Oregon may just narrowly pass the amendment with around 54 percent voting "yes" and 46 voting "no." 

But, Louisiana seems set to break the "yes" pattern as a majority of its residents, around 60 percent, have so far been voting "no" to the alterations.

While these results may continue to change as more results are revealed throughout the day, the message is clear: US states are still divided on the issue of slavery.

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Simply symbolic

The five states are the latest to push to eliminate slavery as a punishment, following the lead of Nebraska and Utah voters who decided to remove the language in their 2020’s general election.

And while some advocates argue the proposed amendments are needed to transform the criminal justice system, which permits discrimination and mass incarceration, others counter that the amendments are largely symbolic and may not even lead to significant change.

Louisiana state Representative Alan Seabaugh said the effect would be “absolutely none, whatsoever. It’s essentially just symbolic. It says what’s already on the books - although potentially worse.”

But Tennessee Senator Raumesh Akbari, who sponsored the state’s resolution, said if the amendment is passed it would be “a step closer toward reconciling the consequences of the slavery exception”.

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Source: TRT World