By Margo Kirchner
Twenty Democratic representatives and five senators recently proposed an amendment to the Wisconsin constitution to ban slavery in all forms and circumstances.
The state constitution generally prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude, but it includes an exception permitting slavery or involuntary servitude inside prisons: “There shall be neither slavery, nor involuntary servitude in this state, otherwise than for the punishment of crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”
Senate Joint Resolution 95 and Assembly Joint Resolution 102 would strike the exception from the constitution. The table below shows the joint resolution sponsors.
A proposed constitutional amendment requires passage by two consecutive legislatures, then ratification of a ballot question by voters.
SJR 95 was referred to the Senate’s Committee on Licensing, Constitution and Federalism. AJR 102 was referred to the Assembly’s Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety.
Without Republican sponsors, and with the Legislature in a frenzy to wrap up its session by March, the chance of a hearing and passage this term is low. If the resolution does not pass this term, it could not go to voters until at least 2027.
But grassroots pressure could change that, especially as legislators’ actions now may be considered by voters in the fall. Passage this term and next term would mean a referendum in possibly 2025 or 2026.
Call your state legislators to let them know the importance of this bill. Legislators often give their own constituents’ calls and emails more weight than communications from others. Find your legislators HERE.
The following legislators are extra important right now, as they sit on the committees to which the bills are assigned. The committee chairs, especially, can control whether the proposed resolutions get to hearing. If your legislator is on this list, please consider calling them as soon as possible to let them know your position.
The exception has existed in the constitution since Wisconsin became a state. It tracks a provision in the Northwest Ordinance, which governed the territory before statehood.
Without such a constitutional amendment, Wisconsin lags behind other states—including some southern states—on a full slavery ban. Tennessee and Alabama amended their constitutions in 2022 to eliminate the slavery or involuntary servitude exception. Oregon, Utah, Colorado, Nebraska, and Vermont have all amended their constitutions since 2018. Rhode Island has banned all forms of slavery since the early 1800s. Efforts are underway to amend the constitutions of Kentucky, Georgia, Louisiana, Georgia, Michigan, New Hampshire, Nevada, California, and other states to ban slavery without exception.
The U.S. Constitution contains a similar exception in the Thirteenth Amendment. Amending the U.S. Constitution is a lengthy process requiring passage by two-thirds of each house of Congress and ratification by 38 states.
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