PROVIDENCE – Rhode Island is the only state seeking to change its official name this year, but there are four other states where voters will be asked to support racial justice through various ballot initiatives.
From repealing a ban on affirmative action in California to the attempts to remove slavery as a criminal punishment from the state constitutions in Nebraska and Utah, voters have the chance to rewrite laws in a year where racism has been a top-of-mind issue.
Here’s an overview of the five race-related ballot questions in Rhode Island, California, Mississippi, Nebraska, and Utah.
Rhode Island’s official name is the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, but the only statewide question on the ballot this year asks voters to remove “and Providence Plantations” because of the connection between the word “plantation” and slavery. A campaign has been launched urging residents to vote yes on question one, and there has been little public opposition to the name change. Still, it’s no guarantee that voters will approve it. In 2010, nearly 78 percent of voters rejected a similar proposal.
Proposition 16 would repeal the state’s ban on affirmative action considerations – think race, gender, or ethnicity – in college admissions and public hiring. California voters approved the ban in 1996 with just under 55 percent of the vote, and the courts have repeatedly ruled that it is constitutional. The effort to repeal picked up steam in June following the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis, but the odds remain long. September polls from the University of California Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies and the Public Policy Institute of California found the percentage of residents supporting Proposition 16 is in the low 30s.
In June, lawmakers voted to retire Mississippi’s state flag -- which included the Confederate battle emblem -- and Governor Tate Reeves signed a bill that allows voters to select a new flag in November. But this isn’t a multiple choice contest. A commission unanimously picked a flag that includes a magnolia flower and the words “In God We Trust,” and now voters will vote up or down on whether the adopt it. If it’s rejected, voters will be asked to consider another design next year. The last time the flag was on the ballot, Mississippi voters overwhelmingly supported a flag that included the Confederate emblem, but public polling earlier this year showed the majority of voters now back a change.
The 13th Amendment abolished slavery in the United States in 1865, and Nebraska banned slavery even before it was admitted to the union in 1867. Yet the state still has language in its constitution that allows for slavery to be imposed as a sentence for a person convicted of a crime. Nebraska’s legislature voted in 2019 to eliminate that language on this year’s ballot. Colorado voters approved a similar measure in 2018, two years after they rejected it (it was placed on the ballot again because the first question was considered confusing).
It turns out that there are 12 states that allow for slavery to be used as a criminal punishment, and Utah is joining Nebraska in attempting to remove that provision from its constitution. Utah included the so-called slavery exception in its constitution in 1895, months before it was admitted to the union. The removal of the language appears to have bipartisan support, but there is some fear that Utah voters may be confused or overwhelmed by the seven constitutional amendments that appear on the ballot this year.