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US Midterm Elections Yield Key Human Rights Victories

Progress Around Abortion, Abolition of Slavery, and Decriminalization

Voting booths on the first day of early voting in Orlando, Florida, October 24, 2022. © 2022 Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images via AP Photo

During Tuesday's midterm elections, voters across the United States cast their ballots on a variety of state and local ballot initiatives, several of which were aimed at advancing equity and human dignity. From these choices emerged victories around reproductive rights, abolition of some lingering vestiges of slavery, and decriminalization of marijuana.

In response to the United States Supreme Court’s June 2022 decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and 50 years of precedent on abortion, voters in at least four states yesterday chose to protect abortion rights. In Michigan, voters amended the state constitution to protect the individual right to reproductive freedom, including personal control of all decisions around a pregnancy. In California and Vermont, voters also overwhelmingly approved state constitutional amendments protecting reproductive freedom. Kentucky voters meanwhile defeated a measure seeking to deny constitutional protection of abortion. This won’t change Kentucky’s restrictive abortion ban overnight but clears a path for overturning it.

Voters also faced the question of closing once and for all the shameful exception to the US Constitution’s Thirteenth Amendment which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude except as  punishment for a crime. The US prison labor system is a legacy of enslavement and a form of economic exploitation that continues to perpetuate racial inequality. Over 150 years after the abolition of chattel slavery, Alabama, Oregon, Vermont, and Tennessee have finally joined the ranks of states who have cleared a path to ending the practice of using imprisoned people as forced labor. 

Legalization of marijuana for recreational use was also on the ballot this election. Maryland voters passed such an initiative with wide margins, a long-overdue example of public opinion about marijuana use and criminalization shifting. Wider legalization would begin to remedy the clear discrimination and racial inequities in arrests and prosecutions for marijuana-related offenses. 

In the face of misinformation and economic anxiety, voters in many jurisdictions across the country nonetheless exercised their right to participate in the democratic process yesterday. In many cases, their participation resulted in historic victories in the fight to protect the human rights and dignity of all.

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