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All 4 Tennessee amendments pass, banning slavery and putting 'right-to-work' language in state constitution

Voters decided to approve "right-to-work" language in the state constitution and to remove slavery as a punishment for crime.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennesseeans voted in favor of four amendments to the state constitution during Tuesday's election.

People voted on the four amendments during the midterm election alongside the Tennesee governor's race, candidates for the United States House of Representatives, as well as Tennessee House and Senate seats.

For the proposed constitutional amendments, people simply voted yes or no. A "yes" vote would choose to amend the state constitution and adopt the new language. A "no" vote would choose to keep the current language. 

Two things must happen for an amendment to pass and become part of the Constitution.

  1. The amendment must get more yes votes than no votes. 
  2. The number of yes votes must be a majority of the total votes in the gubernatorial election, meaning the number of "yes" votes must be more than half the total number of votes cast in the governor's race for the amendment to pass.

This story will be updated during election night. Final results are expected to come in late Tuesday night or early Wednesday morning.

Amendment 1: "Right-to-Work"

A new section will be added to article XI of the Tennessee Constitution after 70% of voters voted to adopt new language surrounding an existing Tennessee law over unions.

Tennessee has had "right-to-work" laws written into state code since the 1940s, which makes it illegal for workplaces to mandate union membership or dues as a condition of employment. Likewise, the law prevents employers from firing workers if they are part of a union, which is also protected by federal law.

Ultimately, opponents of such "right-to-work" laws said these laws allow non-union members to enjoy union benefits, which they said reduces the ability of members to engage in collective bargaining in their workplace.

State Republican lawmakers in 2020 adopted a resolution to place the law into the state constitution as an amendment, saying it was intended to keep business strong in the state.

That law, as written, makes it illegal for any person, corporation, association, or the State of Tennessee or its political subdivisions to deny or attempt to deny employment to any person because of the person's membership in, affiliation with, resignation from, or refusal to join or affiliate with any labor union or employee organization. 

Even though this amendment does not change the longstanding status of "right-to-work" in Tennessee, it would make it more difficult to overturn or change such laws in the future without another amendment vote.

TNRight2Work released this statement regarding the results: 

"Tonight is a great night for Tennessee employees and employers, and for continued economic growth in our state. With the successful passage of Amendment 1, the voters have firmly secured Tennessee’s right-to-work law in our state constitution to guarantee all Tennessee workers the freedom to decide for themselves whether or not to join a union in their workplace.

Amending the constitution is a long, multi-year process, and we are grateful to so many, but especially to Governors Lee and Haslam, Lt. Governor McNally and Speaker Sexton, and the thousands of other champions both in the General Assembly and beyond who supported and contributed to tonight’s victory across the state.

Right-to-work states like Tennessee have higher real income and employment growth than non-right-to-work states, and this vote once again ensures Tennessee will continue to be among the top states in the nation to live, work, and run a business. We thank the voters of this state for standing up for this Tennessee tradition by enshrining it in our constitution.

Amendment 2: Assigning an Acting Governor

The second proposed amendment adds more directions for legislators to follow in the state constitution for the process of addressing situations where the governor is temporarily unable to exercise their powers or duties. 

Currently, the constitution simply states the speaker of the Senate is the first in line to take over if the governor is removed, resigns from office or if they die during their tenure. If there is no speaker of the Senate, then the responsibility of governing the state falls on the speaker of the House.

The amendment would add new wording to include situations where the governor is temporarily unable to perform their duties, such as for medical reasons. Similar to the existing constitutional rules, the speaker of the Senate is first in line to assume the governor's responsibilities as acting governor. Once the governor is able to return to their role, they would have to submit a written, signed declaration that they are able to resume their responsibilities.

Another new rule would give the commissioners of the administrative departments in the executive department the power to temporarily allow the speaker of the Senate to take over as acting governor in the event the governor is unable to perform their duties. The majority of commissioners would need to submit written declarations to the Secretary of State, Speaker of the Senate and Speaker of the House to transfer power.

When the speaker is in the acting governor role, they would not be able to preside as speaker or vote as a member of the general assembly. The acting governor would be paid the same salary they make as speaker.

Amendment 3: "Removing Slavery as a Punishment for Crime"

80% of votes in Tennessee were in favor of changing the current language in article I, section 33 of the state constitution. 

Language in the state's constitution will now say: "Slavery and involuntary servitude are forever prohibited. Nothing in this section shall prohibit an inmate from working when the inmate has been duly convicted of a crime." 

Tennessee's constitution outlaws slavery. Previously, one clause retained language from 1870 and stated: "That slavery and involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, are forever prohibited in this state." 

In 2019, Senator Raumesh Akbari (D-Memphis) proposed changing the language of that clause to formally ban all forms of slavery in the state in writing. The legislation was sponsored by Rep. Joe Towns (D-Memphis), and it passed unanimously on the first round of voting in the legislature. 

"Some Tennesseans may be prisoners, but, by God, they will not be slaves. We are the first Southern State to embrace universal abolition," Towns said in 2021.

During the second round of voting in 2021 -- six Republican lawmakers voted against the amendment, claiming it was "unnecessary" to update the language and that it would confuse voters into thinking slavery was still allowed under the state constitution.

Amendment 4: Removing the Religious Minister Disqualification

The fourth proposed amendment would delete a section in the constitution that was written to prevent "ministers of the Gospel" and priests of any denomination from holding office in the state.

The clause that it's trying to delete from the constitution hasn't been enforced for decades. Tennessee was the last state to enforce such restrictions on religious ministers holding office and had done so since 1796.

The U.S. Supreme Court in 1978 struck down the clause as unconstitutional in McDaniel v. Paty. In that case, Paul McDaniel, a Baptist minister and civil rights leader from Chattanooga, was sued by his opponent, Selma Cash Paty, challenging his eligibility for office based on the law.

At the time, Tennessee had argued the law existed to uphold the separation of church and state under the First Amendment's Establishment Clause.

"The essence of the rationale underlying the Tennessee restriction on ministers is that if elected to public office they will necessarily exercise their powers and influence to promote the interests of one sect or thwart the interests of another, thus pitting one against the others, contrary to the anti-establishment principle with its command of neutrality," the justices said in the decision.

After the Supreme Court decision, McDaniel went on to serve as a Hamilton County commissioner for two decades. He died in 2021

The amendment had bipartisan support in the Tennessee House and Senate.


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