Tennesseans will have the opportunity to vote on four amendments to the state constitution in the coming midterm election. The amendments have already passed through the state legislature, so a vote from the public will be their final test. Ranging from language clarifications to codification of controversial so-called right-to-work laws, here’s what’s coming up on the ballot.

Early voting in Davidson County will take place from Oct. 19 until Nov. 3, with Election Day landing on Nov. 8. Find more information — including a list of early-voting locations — via nashville.gov.

Constitutional Amendment 1

With backing from Gov. Bill Lee, the first amendment on the ballot aims to codify Tennessee’s right-to-work law. One of 27 states with such laws, Tennessee has been right-to-work since the 1940s. But critics say “right-to-work” is a misnomer, and labor advocacy groups such as AFL-CIO have taken to referring to it as a “right to work for less.”

In states with right-to-work laws, unions have far less bargaining and advocacy power, leaving employers with more control over the workforce. This is because it allows workers to opt out of unions and their dues, even if they benefit from union-negotiated contracts. Advocates for the amendment say right-to-work makes Tennessee more attractive to employers, and that codifying the law in the state constitution will make its future reversal far more difficult should those opposed to right-to-work ever win control of the state legislature. Right-to-work laws have also come under fire nationwide, and should they ever be overturned at a national level, advocates for the law say its addition to the state constitution would give Tennessee more power to fight the change. 

Constitutional Amendment 2

Article 3, Section 12 of the state constitution currently states that in the case of the governor’s death, resignation or removal from office, the powers of the governor’s office are delegated to the speaker of the state Senate, followed by the speaker of the House. This amendment essentially adds clarifications on what exactly this process should look like. It also makes it clear that while fulfilling the governor’s duties, the speaker can retain their seat in legislature but cannot vote as a member of legislature.

Additionally, the amendment says that while filling in as governor, the speaker would still receive a speaker’s salary, not a governor’s salary. The amendment would also temporarily exempt the speaker from a law that prohibits representatives from holding more than one state office while they are performing the duties of governor. 

Constitutional Amendment 3

Article 1, Section 33 of the state constitution currently prohibits slavery unless someone has been convicted of a crime, in which case they can be submitted to involuntary servitude as punishment. Amendment 3 would remove the so-called “punishment clause” from the constitution, prohibiting slavery outright. A stipulation has also been added that states, “Nothing in this section shall prohibit an inmate from working when the inmate has been duly convicted of a crime,” a change that prisoner advocates and activist groups have shown support for.

The current language mirrors that of the U.S. Constitution’s 13th Amendment. That language has come under a lot of fire over the years, especially following the release of Ava DuVernay’s 13th in 2016, a documentary that details the ways in which corporations use the language in this amendment to take advantage of prisoners for free labor. CoreCivic, one of the biggest private prison companies in the country, is based out of Nashville and runs four of the 14 state prisons in Tennessee. There are currently 20 states in the U.S. with various forms of the “punishment clause” in their state constitutions, and in November Tennessee will join four other states in voting to change this. 

Constitutional Amendment 4

Article 9, Section 1 of the state constitution currently prohibits ministers and priests of any denomination from holding a seat in the state legislature. The U.S. Supreme Court declared the provision unconstitutional in 1978, so this rule has not actually been enforced since then. Amendment 4 would officially remove this prohibition from the state constitution. 

Like what you read?

Click here to make a contribution to the Scene and support local journalism!