Focus on the Constitution
The Seventeenth Amendment
Constitution Day is September 17th.
When the framers of the Constitution convened in Philadelphia in 1787, they struggled over the question of who should elect United States senators. They considered several options, including selection by the House of Representatives and direct election by the people. Ultimately the framers decided on a method of election that had been utilized in selecting delegates to attend the Convention itself—election by the state legislatures. Article I, section 3, of the Constitution states:
The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each state, chosen by the legislature thereof for six Years; and each Senator shall have one Vote.
The framers believed that having state legislatures elect senators would strengthen the states' ties to the national government and increase the chances for ratification of the Constitution. They hoped that this arrangement would give state political leaders a sense of participation, calming their fears about a strong central government. They also wanted to provide a filter between the Senate and the passions and pressures of the populace. As the authors of the Federalist Papers explained, election by the state legislatures "is recommended by the double advantage of favoring a select appointment, and of giving to the State governments such an agency in the formation of the federal government as must secure the authority of the former, and may form a convenient link between the two systems" (Federalist No. 62).
The System Breaks Down
In the early years of the Republic, this system of indirect election of senators seemed to work well. After several decades, however, growing partisanship in some state legislatures resulted in contentious deadlocks that left vacant Senate seats. The impetus for reform began as early as 1826, when direct election of senators was first proposed, but it was not until the latter half of the 19th century that the system of indirect election began to break down. Intimidation and corruption marked some of the states' selection of senators. The Senate considered nine bribery cases between 1866 and 1906. In addition, 45 deadlocks occurred in 20 states between 1891 and 1905, resulting in numerous delays in seating senators. Despite the passage of a federal law in 1866 to regulate the election methods of the state legislatures, deadlocks and vacancies continued. In 1899 problems in electing a senator in Delaware became so acute that the state legislature did not send a senator to Washington for four years.
Amending the Constitution
Despite the frequent vacancies, disputed election results, and the growing number of calls for reform, the Senate itself resisted change, forcing states to initiate reforms on their own. Oregon pioneered direct election and experimented with different measures over several years until it succeeded in 1907. Under the so-called "Oregon Model," candidates for the state legislature pledged to support the Senate candidate who won the popular vote. Soon after, Nebraska followed suit. Such experiments laid the foundation for other states to adopt measures reflecting the people's will. By 1911 more than half the states were utilizing some element of popular election in the selection of senators. Senators who resisted reform had difficulty ignoring the growing support for direct election. As more senators came to the Senate through these new state-instituted measures, support for a constitutional amendment grew in the chamber. On June 12, 1911, the Senate finally agreed to the proposed amendment. The Seventeenth Amendment (view document) to the U.S. Constitution was adopted on April 8, 1913, when Connecticut became the 36th state to ratify, fulfilling the three-fourths requirement stipulated in Article V of the Constitution.