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Landmark Legislation: The Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution

Seventeenth Amendment

Voters have selected U.S. senators in the privacy of the voting booth since 1913. This system of “direct election” was not what the framers of the U.S. Constitution had in mind, however, when they met at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Article I, section 3 of the U.S. Constitution, as written by the framers, provided for election of senators by state legislatures.

As early as 1826, resolutions calling for direct popular election of senators appeared in the House of Representatives, but none succeeded. In 1866 Congress passed a law to regulate the time and procedure for electing senators, in response to disputed elections in Indiana and New Jersey, but left intact election by state legislatures.

Following the Civil War, disputes among state legislators over Senate elections resulted in numerous deadlocks, leaving some Senate seats vacant for long periods of time. The Delaware legislature reached a stalemate in 1895, taking 217 ballots over a period of 114 days. Delaware remained without representation in the U.S. Senate for two years. In light of such problems, reformers in many states began calling for a change to the system of electing senators. In Oregon, for example, a number of measures were enacted in the early 20th century allowing voters to express their choice for senator. Other states followed this “Oregon Plan” and instituted their own version of election reform.

A turning point came in 1906, when publisher William Randolph Hearst, a proponent of direct election, hired novelist David Graham Phillips to write a number of articles on the subject. Published in Cosmopolitan magazine in 1906, Phillips’ series, “The Treason of the Senate,” offered an unsympathetic (and largely fictionalized) account of senators as pawns of industrialists and financiers. The articles further galvanized public support for reform.

In 1911 Senator Joseph Bristow of Kansas offered a Senate resolution to amend the Constitution, and soon other senators called for reform. Senator William Borah of Idaho, himself a product of a state-based system of direct election, strongly supported the measure. In fact, by 1912, as many as 29 states elected U.S. senators either as nominees of their party's primary or in a general election. These popularly elected senators became outspoken proponents for a direct election process.

Following Senate passage of the amendment on June 12, 1911, Bristow’s resolution moved to the House of Representatives, which approved it, and then to the states for ratification. Connecticut's approval on April 8, 1913, gave the Seventeenth Amendment the required three-fourths majority needed for ratification. Augustus Bacon of Georgia was the first senator directly elected under the terms of the Seventeenth Amendment, on July 15, 1913. The following year marked the first time that all senatorial elections were held by popular vote.

The Seventeenth Amendment restates the first paragraph of Article I, section 3 of the Constitution and provides for the election of senators by replacing the phrase “chosen by the Legislature thereof” with “elected by the people thereof.” In addition, it allows the governor or executive authority of each state, if authorized by that state’s legislature, to appoint a senator in the event of a vacancy, until a general election occurs.

For Further Reading:

Robert C. Byrd, The Senate, 1789-1989, Volume 1 (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1988).

George H. Haynes, "Election of Senators by State Legislatures," chap. 3 in The Senate of the United States, Volume I (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1938).

C. H. Hoebeke, The Road to Mass Democracy: Original Intent and the Seventeenth Amendment (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1995).