Nebraskans can vote to abolish slavery as criminal punishment this November


Zach Gilbert

In the November election, Nebraskans will be asked if they wish to repeal the approval of slavery as criminal punishment present in the state constitution. Photo courtesy of CNN.

On Nov. 3, Nebraskans will not only be able to cast their vote for the next President, but they will also have the chance to vote to remove the shadow of slavery from the state’s constitution.

Nebraska Amendment 1, the Remove Slavery as Punishment for Crime from Constitution Amendment, is on the ballot in Nebraska this year as a legislatively referred constitutional amendment. According to the Nebraska State Legislature, the Nebraska Constitution has prohibited slavery and involuntary servitude since 1875, except as punishments for those convicted of crimes.

This November, Nebraskans can either vote “yes” on Amendment 1 – to support removing the language from the Nebraska Constitution that allows the use of slavery and involuntary servitude as criminal punishments – or “no” – to oppose this ballot measure, thus keeping the current language in the state constitution.

If Amendment 1 passes, it would amend Section 2 of Article I of the Nebraska Constitution. Section 2 currently states, “There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in this state, otherwise than for punishment of crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” Amendment 1 would repeal the statement following “otherwise.”

The activist group Vote YES: End Slavery in Nebraska is leading the campaign in support of the amendment. Nebraska State Senator Justin T. Wayne (D) led the initiative, and the Nebraska Legislature voted unanimously last year to bring the issue to Nebraskan voters.

“Our Constitution is not a symbolic document; it is the moral and legal foundation of our State and our laws,” Wayne said in a press release in 2019. “Removing this language from our Constitution shows that slavery is not a Nebraska value.”

The amendment also earned the support of the Omaha World-Herald Editorial Board in March 2019.

“While the Nebraska Constitution of 1875 prohibits slavery, it provides a strange exception, allowing involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime,” the Omaha World-Herald Editorial Board stated in their endorsement. “Authorities in Nebraska used that provision for decades to allow convict leasing, in which prisoners were leased out to provide labor for farms, roads and other projects… Voter approval next year is needed. Convict leasing was a much-abused action. Let’s sever Nebraska’s constitutional connection to it.”

The Nebraska Constitution is one of 12 state constitutions that ban slavery and involuntary servitude but include an exception for criminal punishment. The other states are Arkansas, Indiana, Kentucky, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, Tennessee, Utah and Wisconsin.

Furthermore, an additional nine state constitutions include provisions permitting involuntary servitude, but not slavery, as a criminal punishment. These states are Alabama, California, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan,North Carolina and Ohio.

One state – Vermont – has a constitutional provision permitting involuntary servitude to pay a debt, damage, fine or cost.

These archaic provisions are all allowed by the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which includes an exception clause permitting slavery or involuntary servitude for people convicted of crimes. The amendment explicitly states, “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.”

There is precedent for removing language like this in a state constitution. In 2018, voters in Colorado approved Colorado Amendment A, which removed language from the state constitution saying that slavery and involuntary servitude were permitted as criminal punishments.