by Mike Ward
Senior VP, Government & Public Affairs
Huntsville/Madison County Chamber
Alabama’s 1901 Constitution was drafted with the expressed intent of suppressing minority engagement in the political process and codifying racial segregation. The slogan promoting the Constitutional Convention declared “white supremacy, suffrage reform and purity in elections.”
For example, Section 256 under the education article says: “Separate schools shall be provided for white and colored children, and no child of either race shall be permitted to attend a school of the other race.”
The people of Alabama will have an opportunity to set in motion a series of events that will remove this racist language when they vote in the General Election on November 3.
If approved by a majority of the people, Amendment #4 on the ballot would empower the Alabama Legislature, when it meets in 2022, to draft a rearranged version of the state constitution. This draft could only (1) remove racist language, (2) remove language that is repeated or no longer applies, (3) combine language related to economic development, and (4) combine language that relates to the same county. No other changes could be made.
Should the Alabama Legislature pass such a measure, this rearranged version of the Constitution would not become law until it was approved by a majority of voters in a subsequent referendum in 2022, since Alabama’s constitution can be changed only during a constitutional convention or when a majority of voters approve a constitutional amendment.
View a sample ballot for Madison County.
The Legislature passed the bill to put Amendment 4 on the ballot in 2019, without a dissenting vote.
The Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform, a non-profit group started in 2000, spearheaded the legislation and helped convince lawmakers to support it.
Rep. Merika Coleman, D-Pleasant Grove, the legislation’s sponsor, says it has taken on more importance because of the racial justice movement sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in May.
The bill provides for the director of the Legislative Services Agency, which writes bills and advises lawmakers, to draft a revised constitution and submit it to the Legislature in 2022. It would require approval by three-fifths of the members in the House and the Senate to send to the ballot for voters.
Efforts to remove racist language from Alabama’s constitution fell short in 2004 and 2012. Both times, opposition surfaced because of leftover language from the days of segregated schools.
In 2012, a similar amendment repealed the school segregation and poll tax language but left in the language from Amendment 111 that there was no right to a publicly funded education. The Alabama Education Association and others campaigned against the amendment because it preserved that language and voters rejected it by about a 60-40 percent margin.
Amendment 4 on this year’s ballot does not change the Amendment 111 language, or anything else in the constitution. Instead, it authorizes the process for making revisions to be considered in 2022 by lawmakers and then voters.
Four years ago, voters approved four constitutional amendments recommended by Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform, including one to give counties more authority to regulate county personnel, litter control, public transportation, traffic safety and emergency assistance without approval of the Legislature.
If Amendment 4 is approved, the amendments pertaining to one county would be organized by county, rather than listed in the order in which they were ratified by voters.
The language that voters will see on the ballot for Amendment 4 says:
Proposing an amendment to the Constitution of Alabama of 1901, to authorize the Legislature to recompile the Alabama Constitution and submit it during the 2022 Regular Session, and provide a process for its ratification by the voters of this state.
Coleman’s bill authorizing the amendment, HB 328, says, in part:
The Legislature, upon the recommendation of the Director of the Legislative Services Agency through a proposed draft, may arrange this constitution, as amended, in proper articles, parts, and sections removing all racist language, delete duplicative and repealed provisions, consolidate provisions regarding economic development, arrange all local amendments by county of application during the 2022 Regular Session of the Legislature, and make no other changes. The draft and arrangement, when approved by a three-fifths vote of each house of the Legislature, through joint resolution, shall be submitted to the voters.