Voters Challenge Legacy of SlaveryNovember 07, 2018

After more than a century of silence about laws and practices that reflect America's history of racial inequality, voters in three states decided to end practices rooted in racial subordination and bigotry.

Florida: Reversing Course on Felony Disenfranchisement 

In Florida, voters approved Amendment 4, a ballot initiative that automatically restores voting rights to 1.4 million people with felony convictions.

State laws disenfranchising people convicted of a felony proliferated during the 1860s and 1870s, especially in Southern states with the largest populations of African Americans, where lawmakers were explicit about the need to suppress the black vote.

Florida created an especially harsh felony disenfranchisement scheme, barring people from voting even after they completed their sentences. A process for getting voting rights restored was recently adopted in the state, but it required people to wait up to seven years to apply and the process itself could take years. According to the Florida Commission on Offender Review, only 3005 of more than 30,000 applicants had their voting rights restored through this system.

As a result, Florida disenfranchised more potential voters than any other state, barring more than 10 percent of all potential voters and more than 21 percent of potential black voters from the polls due to felony records. Because African Americans are disproportionately arrested and incarcerated, Florida voters' abolition of felony disenfranchisement (except for murder and felony sex offense convictions) is a significant step towards confronting and healing the state's history of racial injustice.

Louisiana: Ending Split Verdicts

Louisiana voters overwhelmingly passed a constitutional amendment to abolish a century-old remnant of the Jim Crow era — a constitutional provision that allows a felony conviction even when jurors do not agree that the accused is guilty.

The split-jury law was one of several provisions passed during a state constitutional convention that was convened in 1898 to mitigate black voters' threat to white political control through "the purification of the electorate." By providing that 9-3 verdicts were sufficient to convict people of serious felonies, the new constitution ensured that, even if a few African Americans made it onto a jury, their votes would not matter.

Today, split verdicts are routine in Louisiana. Analyzing about 3000 felony trials over six years, the Advocate found that 40 percent of nearly 1000 convictions rendered by 12-member juries were split verdicts. When the defendant was black, the proportion went up to 43 percent, compared to 33 percent for white defendants, reporters found. In three-quarters of the cases with convictions, the defendant was black.

In May, the Louisiana legislature overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment to abolish the split-verdict rule, paving the way for voters to approve the ballot measure yesterday. The amendment takes effect on January 1.

Colorado: Abolishing Prison Slavery

Colorado voters yesterday approved Amendment A, removing language in the state constitution that allowed prison labor without pay.

Like more than a dozen other states, Colorado's state constitution mirrors the Thirteenth Amendment, which made slavery and involuntary servitude unconstitutional in the United States "except as a punishment for crime."

After the end of slavery, the criminal justice system became one of the primary means of continuing the legalized involuntary servitude of African Americans.

Initially, states passed discriminatory laws to arrest and imprison large numbers of black people, then leased prisoners to private individuals and corporations in a system of convict leasing that resulted in dangerous conditions, abuse, and death. While states profited, prisoners earned no pay and faced inhumane, hazardous, and often deadly work conditions.

Thousands of black people were forced into a brutal system that historians have called "worse than slavery." By the middle of the 20th century, states abandoned convict leasing due to industrialization and political pressure and extended slavery through chain gangs and prison farms.

Local groups like Abolish Slavery Colorado worked alongside the state ACLU and NAACP to build support for the new amendment after a similar measure failed in 2016. Jumoke Emery, a lead organizer with Abolish Slavery Colorado, told CNN, "I hope that this puts forth the message that our past doesn’t have to be our future, that by and large we as Americans are interested in fixing our mistakes."