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Rejection of anti-slavery initiative in Colorado disappoints backers

Confusion blamed for failure to strike archaic language from constitution
Sister Sharon Bridgeforth, an organizer with a campaign that sought to strike an exemption to the state’s prohibition on slavery, speaks at a rally at the Colorado Capitol on Aug. 23. To the surprise of many, the initiative was failing in Colorado. Proponents blame confusion over the language of the initiative.

DENVER – An effort to unchain Colorado from archaic language in the state constitution that allows for slavery in some cases was poised for defeat.

Amendment T was trailing 49 percent to 51 percent Wednesday afternoon in unofficial results, with all counties reporting, though some provisional ballots were still out. The measure was failing Wednesday afternoon by 39,580 votes.

Some people were asking, “Do Coloradans value slavery?”

But proponents say it was a poorly-worded description of the initiative in the voter guide that led to confusion. Some voters likely said “No” to the measure, thinking they were saying “No” to slavery.

“They said that it was very confusing,” explained Rep. Joe Salazar, D-Thornton, who co-sponsored legislation that referred the initiative to voters. When they (constituents) said they voted ‘no’ on Amendment T, I explained to them what Amendment T was about ... They were like, ‘That’s not how it read.’”

The Legislature unanimously referred the initiative to voters last session. While the 140-year-old language was never used, it carries symbolism, which proponents – many who are African American – say is not a Colorado value.

Proponents said the language represents a time in the nation’s history when not all people were seen as humans treated fairly under the law. A handful of concerns were raised, including that the effort would create legal uncertainties surrounding offender work and community service programs. But no opposition group or effort was launched.

At a campaign launch for the initiative in August, one observer joked that only the KKK would oppose such a seemingly obvious measure.

Yet, it appeared Colorado voters defeated the initiative. La Plata County voters, however, had supported the effort to remove the archaic language 55 percent to 45 percent. Proponents are considering asking the Legislature to again refer the measure to voters.

Supporters would take it to the ballot through a citizen-led initiative, but another ballot question that passed Tuesday night made it significantly more difficult to amend the state constitution.

Proponents operated on a shoestring budget, so they did not have the resources to advertise for the initiative, which they said would have helped to clear confusion.

“I know that Colorado does not value slavery,” said Sister Sharon Bridgeforth, a member of the campaign’s committee. “It has to be the language – people didn’t understand it.”


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