Election 2022: Amendments #2, #3, #4

Tennessee State Capitol Building

Election 2022: Amendments #2, #3, #4

Three non-controversial proposed changes to the state constitution will be on the ballot in this year’s election.

by scott barker • October 18, 2022
Tennessee State Capitol Building
Tennessee state capitol.

Four amendments to the state constitution are on the ballot for the Nov. 8 election, but only one has stirred any debate.

"Yes" votes need to number more than half the votes cast in the governor's race for an amendment to pass.

Amendment #1, which would incorporate the language of Tennessee’s “right to work” law into the state constitution, has drawn opposition from unions and labor advocates. (Compass has published an in-depth look at Amendment #1.)

The other three amendments haven’t created controversy.

Amendment #2 would add a succession plan in cases when a governor is incapacitated for any reason and can’t discharge the duties of the office.

Amendment #3 would remove the prison labor exemption to the state’s ban on slavery.

Amendment #4 would remove a provision prohibiting members of the clergy from serving in the General Assembly.

With no organized opposition, the three amendments should easily gain voter approval. The only apparent risk to their passage would come if a large number of voters skip the questions.  

To become part of the state constitution, each measure must receive a majority of “yes” votes, and that number must be greater than half the votes cast in the governor’s race. If the number of “yes” votes equals half the gubernatorial votes or less, an amendment would fail.

Here’s a look at the three amendments.

Amendment #2

Tennessee’s constitution has a provision for gubernatorial succession if the governor is removed from office, resigns or dies. If any of those events occurs, the speaker of the Senate, who also has the title of lieutenant governor, would assume the powers and duties of the office. If there is no speaker of the Senate for whatever reason, the speaker of the House would become acting governor.

But Tennessee is the only state with no provision for succession if a governor becomes incapacitated due to injury, illness or other act. (e.g., a coma after a stroke or accident.) Amendment #2 would establish that process. 

Under the provision, the governor would have to notify the secretary of state, the speaker of the Senate and the speaker of the House in writing that he or she is unable to perform the duties of the office and relinquishes its powers to the speaker of the Senate. The governor would be able to re-assume the responsibilities of the office by notifying the same three officials.

A majority of the commissioners who run the departments in the executive branch can also trigger the succession plan by writing to the secretary of state and the two legislative speakers.

The current lieutenant governor is Senate Speaker Randy McNally, who represents Anderson County and part of Knox County. The amendment has another local connection — its most persistent champion has been state Sen. Becky Duncan Massey, who represents the 6th Senate District in Knox County.

Amendment #2 would make Article III, Section 12 of the state constitution similar to the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The measure would also amend Article III, Section 13 and Article II, Section 25, allowing members of the Legislature to assume the duties of governor. 

Amendment #3

The state constitution contains an exemption to the ban on slavery, a relic that once allowed the state to force prisoners into involuntary servitude through convict leasing. 

Article I, Section 33 reads, “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.”

Amendment #3 would remove the exemption for people convicted of crimes, but explicitly states that it would not prohibit the state from using paid convict labor.

The exemption was used in the late 1800s to justify convict leasing, which permitted private companies to lease prisoners, who would work without wages. The overwhelming majority of prisoners were African Americans, often convicted of vague crimes like “malicious mischief.” Conditions were often inhumane.

Tennessee began leasing convicts, first to furniture manufacturers, in 1866, the year after the Civil War ended. In 1884, the Tennessee Coal and Iron Co. leased the state penitentiary and later obtained permission to sublease prisoners to other companies.

Free white miners, angry that unpaid prisoners worked the state’s coal mines, engaged in minor insurrections over the practice until the Coal Creek War erupted in Anderson County in 1891. 

Miners attacked stockades where prisoners were held and freed them. Battles raged between miners and members of the state militias in Coal Creek (now known as Rocky Top), and the conflict spread to Tracy City and other mining communities. 

To end the violence, the state Legislature voted to end convict leasing when the contract expired in 1896 and build a new prison. Convict leasing ended, though prisoners were forced to build Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary and to mine coal on its grounds for decades.

The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution also contains an exemption for prisoners to the nation’s slavery ban. In 2020, Democrats in Congress began a push to remove the “punishment clause.”

Amendment #4

Tennessee’s constitution bars clergy from serving in the General Assembly, though the prohibition is not followed. Two current members of the Legislature are ministers.

In 1978, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Tennessee’s clergy ban, the last of its kind in the country, was unconstitutional. Amendment #4 would remove the ban and align the constitution with the Supreme Court’s decision.