Story by Johari Hamilton | Contributing Writer and Kailee Shores | Assistant News Editor
The path a proposed amendment takes to the Tennessee Constitution is a long and winding road. It’s a journey full of seemingly impossible hurdles, including multiple votes by the state Legislature, before it is put to the ultimate test, a “Yes” or “No” decision by Tennesseans.
Yet, in 2022, four proposed amendments survived the process and voters will soon decide their fate, including one regarding the abolition of slavery.
“In Tennessee we don’t make it easy to amend the constitution, which I’m actually in favor of, because if it were easy, I just shudder to think of what could be added or subtracted,” said Kathy Chambers.
Chambers is campaign manager of Yes On 3, a bipartisan effort to convince voters to approve Amendment 3 on the Nov. 8 ballot. Amendment 3, if passed, would delete wording that implies prisoners can be viewed as slaves from the state’s constitution.
For an amendment to be considered by voters, the amendment first must be considered by legislators in two General Assembly sessions. In Tennessee, the legislature meets in sessions that last two years, so if all goes smoothly, it takes about four years for a proposed amendment to be placed on the ballot.
There are other hurdles, too. The measure must be read and considered three times over the course of one General Assembly. In the third consideration, it must pass by two-thirds majority. It then must go through yet another General Assembly, and pass once again by two-thirds majority before it can make it to the ballot.
Even when a measure receives more “Yes” than “No” votes, there’s still one other requirement: the “Yes” votes for a proposed amendment must receive a 50 percent-plus-one majority of the total votes cast in the gubernatorial election. If this threshold is not met, then the measure fails even if there was a plurality of “Yes” votes. If supporters want to try again, the amendment process must start over in the legislature.
State Sen. Raumesh Akbari, a Democrat from Memphis, took on the challenge of sponsoring the bill that would permanently amend the Tennessee Constitution and remove slavery from the historical document.
According to the senator’s press secretary Brandon Puttbrese, Senator Akbari was approached about the project to remove slavery from Article 1, Section 33 of the Tennessee Constitution by the No Exceptions Prison Collective in 2018.
No Exceptions is a Nashville based organization working to remove the “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted” clause from the US 13th amendment. They also advocate for sentencing reform, improved conditions in prisons and the abolition of private prisons, according to the organization’s website.
“When I found out that this exception existed, I thought, ‘We have got to fix this and we’ve got to fix this right away,” Akbari said. “Our constitution should reflect the values and the beliefs of our state.”
“One thing I love about working for Senator Akbari is when she takes on a challenge, she goes all in,” said Puttbrese.
Senator Akbari began the four-year process to get the bill through the General Assembly in 2019 and again in 2021, since the original bill was only read to the Assembly once.
“One of the critiques of this campaign, even during the debate in the legislature, was slavery is not really happening in Tennessee under these circumstances,” said Puttbrese.
As co-chair of the Yes On 3 Campaign, the senator informed her colleagues of the significance of removing slavery from the Tennessee Constitution without exception.
“Senator Akbari really made it her cause to educate her colleagues about the history of this slavery exception and the call to action of getting rid of it now.”
Akbari was not alone in the process to get the bill passed. State Rep. Joe Towns, a democrat from Memphis, was also approached six years earlier by Rev. Jeannie Alexander, founder and co-director of No Exceptions.
When it came to garnering legislative support, Towns made no excuses for those who opposed the bill.
Towns responded to State Rep. Susan Lynn, a republican from Mt. Juliet voted against the bill, who said she feared inmates could use it as a loophole to sue the state for wages.
In a letter to constituents, Lynn said, “We do not have enough jobs for all inmates, nor the money to pay all inmates. I am very concerned that we will be sued by inmates demanding a job and demanding at least minimum wage. We provide every inmate with free room, board, and medical care … imagine if we are literally paying them a wage to be in jail.”
“How are you going to have a democratic society in a country that still has the vestiges of the most evil thing that befell this country over hundreds of years? And trying to, in any kind of weird, wacky way, justify tainting that, that’s a revelation of her character as it relates to that issue,” said Towns.
The bill passed the 111th and 112th General Assembly sessions with bipartisan support and was placed on the ballot along with three other amendments for November 8.
“I am beyond proud of the groups we have put together. Like, it’s kind of mind-blowing. If you look at what we put together, half of our advisory board, we have 32 elected state legislators, 16 Republicans, 16 Democrats. That was accidental, but it was meant to be as balanced as closely as possible,” said Chambers.
The campaign’s endorsement list is miles long with names on both sides of the aisle and names that have no political association whatsoever.
Puttbrese said, “This is a clear example where we have built up a coalition of folks from all political stripes and in all sections of the state to actually do something together addressing our history of racism in Tennessee.”
“I don’t think anyone would disagree with the fact that we are in a very politically volatile time now,” said Chambers.
On the campaign’s website, Akbari encouraged voters to support the amendment.
“Yes on 3 represents our first and best opportunity to eliminate all slavery, with no exceptions, from the Tennessee Constitution. In November, please vote Yes on 3.”
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