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Tennesseans will vote on these 4 amendments to the state constitution this November

Tennesseans will get a chance to vote on four amendments during the November 8 election.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee voters will be able to vote on four proposed amendments to the state constitution on November 8.

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

Voters in Cocke County's third district will also be able to vote in a special run-off election to break a tie between two county commission candidates.

For the proposed constitutional amendments -- people will simply vote 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.

Amendment 1: "Right-to-Work"

The first proposed amendment on the ballot would take an existing Tennessee law over unions and enshrine it in the state constitution.

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.

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"

The third proposed amendment would update language in the state's constitution that, as currently written, is worded to technically allow slavery and indentured servitude as a punishment for crime.

Tennessee's constitution outlaws slavery, but one clause retains language from 1870 that states: "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. 

The amendment would reword the clause to remove the connection between slavery and prisoners, stating: "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." 

"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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