“Constitutional Amendments” Series – Amendment XVII – “Direct Election of Senators”

Detail of “Puck” cartoon satirizing wealthy figures using their money and influence to take Senatorial positions in Congress, 1890. (Public Domain)

Amendment Seventeen to the Constitution was ratified on April 8, 1913. It overrides the previous Constitution’s provisions on the election of senators, changing it so that they are elected directly by the voting public during elections. The new amendment also authorizes state governors to have temporary officials hold vacant senate seats until a proper special election can be conducted. The official text is as follows:

The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, elected by the people thereof, for six years; and each Senator shall have one vote. The electors in each State shall have the qualifications requisite for electors of the most numerous branch of the State legislatures.

When vacancies happen in the representation of any State in the Senate, the executive authority of such State shall issue writs of election to fill such vacancies: Provided, That the legislature of any State may empower the executive thereof to make temporary appointments until the people fill the vacancies by election as the legislature may direct.

This amendment shall not be so construed as to affect the election or term of any Senator chosen before it becomes valid as part of the Constitution.

During the Constitution’s ratification process, the election of senators was one of the many tenets created out of compromise. James Madison – one of the primary authors of the Constitution and the future fourth president – asserted that having state legislatures choose their senators in Congress would help give the states a sense of authority and legitimacy in selecting representatives for the federal government. George Mason argued further in Federalist No. 62 that having the state legislatures choose senators acted as a bulwark against federal overreach. Wendell Pierce determined that a balance between popularly-elected leaders in the House of Representatives, and state legislature-appointed leaders in the Senate, would allow for a vast range of different perspectives and opinions to be considered in political dialogue. Certain members of the Constitutional Convention made comparisons between the Senate and the English House of Lords, in that the former’s senators being chosen by the state legislatures for a six-year term was an improvement of the latter appointing upper-class British citizens to hold office for life.

Criticisms of the state legislatures appointing senators increased in the post-Civil War era. Three elections from 1857 to 1900 were subjected to Congressional investigations on the grounds of corruption. Since the state legislatures were in charge of selecting senators, wealthier and more influential candidates could easily bribe the legislatures to appoint them in exchange for favors. A second problem was that of electoral deadlock, where state legislatures failed to reach agreements in their selection of senators. The Indiana legislature had a vacant senate seat for two years in the mid-1850s due to this deadlock, specifically on partisan grounds between the Democratic Party in the southern half of the state and the new Republican Party in the northern half. While proposed amendments to reform senatorial elections emerged in the early 19th century, it was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when they increased in volume and popularity. The Populist Party’s Omaha Platform in 1892 called for the direct election of senators, while Oregon became the first state to conduct its senatorial elections by popular vote in 1908. After years of increasing support for the direct election of senators, House Joint Resolution 39 was passed in 1911. The final version of the proposed amendment was produced in 1912, whereupon it was issued to the states for ratification. On April 8, 1913, the Seventeenth Amendment was ratified, after which it was certified on May 31. In the decades following the Seventeenth Amendment’s ratification, there was a sharp decrease in the selection of senators by state legislatures, often taking place in rare cases of necessity. Some historians have observed that the new Amendment allowed new senators to make decisions based on the demands of the constituents that elected them, rather than the state legislatures that may have had ties to special interests. The Seventeenth Amendment has faced legal disputes in more recent times, when the 1991 U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit determined in Trinsey v. Pennsylvania that the amendment is not obliged to hold primaries for special elections. More recent controversies emerged as recently as 2020, with certain senators and political analysts advocating for a repeal of the Seventeenth Amendment on the grounds that state legislatures would guarantee the state loyalty of elected leaders. Occasional intervals of political debate notwithstanding, the Seventeenth Amendment was yet another reform of the original Constitution, designed with the key purpose of adapting the country’s legislative system for the rapid changes of the time period.

Written by Nicholas J. Dilley, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum

Leave a Reply