The Seventeenth Amendment (Amendment XVII) to the United States Constitution established the election of United States Senators by the people of the states. The amendment supersedes Article I, §3, Clauses 1 and 2 of the Constitution, under which senators were elected by state legislatures. It also alters the procedure for filling vacancies in the Senate, allowing for state legislatures to permit their governors to make temporary appointments until a special election can be held. Under the original provisions of the Constitution, senators were elected by state legislatures; this was intended to prevent the federal government from indirectly absconding with the powers and funds of the states. However, over time various issues with these provisions, such as the risk of corruption and the potential for electoral deadlocks or a lack of representation should a seat become vacant, led to a campaign for reform.
Reformers introduced constitutional amendments in 1828, 1829, and 1855, with the issues finally reaching a head during the 1890s and 1900s. Progressives, such as William Jennings Bryan, called for reform to the way senators were chosen. Elihu Root and George Frisbie Hoar were prominent figures in the campaign to maintain the state legislative selection of senators. By 1910, 31 state legislatures had passed motions calling for reform. By 1912, 239 political parties at both the state and national level had pledged some form of direct election, and 33 states had introduced the use of direct primaries. With a campaign for a state-led constitutional amendment gaining strength, and a fear that this could result in a "runaway convention", the proposal to mandate direct elections for the Senate was finally introduced in the Congress. It was passed by the Congress and, on May 13, 1912, was submitted to the states for ratification. By April 8, 1913, three-fourths of the states had ratified the proposed amendment, making it the Seventeenth Amendment. Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan formally declared the amendment's adoption on May 31, 1913.
Critics of the Seventeenth Amendment claim that by altering the way senators are elected, the states lost any representation they had in the federal government and that, in addition to violating the unamendable state suffrage clause of Article V, this led to the gradual "slide into ignominy" of state legislatures, as well as an overextension of federal power and the rise of special interest groups to fill the power vacuum previously occupied by state legislatures. Additionally, concerns have been raised about the power of governors to appoint temporary replacements to fill vacant senate seats, both in terms of how this provision should be interpreted and whether it should be permitted at all. Accordingly, noted public figures have expressed a desire to reform the Seventeenth Amendment, while a few politicians have called for outright repeal of the amendment.
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 that the election or term of any Senator chosen before it becomes valid as part of the Constitution.
Originally, under Article I, § 3, Clauses 1 and 2 of the Constitution, each state legislature elected its state's senators for a six-year term. Each state, regardless of size, is entitled to two senators as part of the Connecticut Compromise between the small and large states. This contrasted with the House of Representatives, a body elected by popular vote, and was described as an uncontroversial decision to make; James Wilson was the sole advocate of popularly electing the Senate and his proposal was defeated 10–1. There were many advantages to the original method of electing senators. Prior to the Constitution, a federal body was one where states effectively formed nothing more than permanent treaties, with citizens retaining their loyalty to their original state. However, under the Constitution the states were subordinated to a central government; the election of senators by the states reassured Antifederalists that there would be some protection against the swallowing up of states and their powers by an ever-expanding federal government, providing a check on the power of the federal government.
Additionally, the longer terms and avoidance of popular election turned the Senate into a body to "temper" the populism of the House. While the Representatives existed in a two-year direct election cycle, the senators could afford to "take a more detached view of issues coming before Congress". State legislatures also retained the theoretical right to "instruct" their senators to vote for or against proposals, giving them both direct and indirect representation in the federal government. The Senate also provided formal bicameralism, with the members of the Senate and House responsible to completely distinct constituencies; this helped defeat the problem of the federal government being subject to "special interests". Members of the Constitutional Convention also saw it as an equivalent to the British House of Lords, containing the "better men" of society; it was hoped that they would provide more coolness and stability than the House of Representatives due to the senators' status.
According to Judge Jay Bybee of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, those in favor of popular elections for senators felt that there were primarily two problems caused by the original provisions: legislative corruption and electoral deadlocks. In terms of corruption, the general feeling was that senatorial elections were "bought and sold", changing hands for favors and sums of money rather than because of the competence of the candidate. Between 1857 and 1900, the Senate investigated three elections over corruption. In 1900, for example, William A. Clark had his election voided after the Senate concluded that he had bought votes in the Montana legislature. However, Bybee and Todd Zywicki believe this concern was largely unfounded; there was a "dearth of hard information" on the subject, and in over a century of elections, only 10 were contested with allegations of impropriety.
Electoral deadlocks were another issue. Because state legislatures were charged with deciding who to appoint as senators, the system relied on them being able to agree. Some states could not, and thus delayed sending representatives to Congress; in a few cases, the system broke down to the point where states completely lacked representation. Deadlocks started to become an issue in the 1850s, with a dead-locked Indiana legislature allowing a Senate seat to sit vacant for two years. Between 1891 and 1905, 46 elections were deadlocked, in 20 different states; in one extreme example, a Senate seat for Delaware went unfilled from 1899 until 1903. The business of holding elections also caused great disruption in the state legislatures, with a full third of the Oregon House of Representatives choosing not to swear the oath of office in 1897 due to a dispute over an open Senate seat. The result was that the legislature was unable to pass legislation that year.
Zywicki again argues that this was not a serious issue. Deadlocks were a problem, but they were the exception rather than the norm; many legislatures did not deadlock over elections at all. Most of those that did in the 19th century were the newly admitted western states, which suffered from "inexperienced legislatures and weak party discipline...as western legislatures gained experience, deadlocks became less frequent." While Utah suffered from deadlocks in 1897 and 1899, they became "a good teaching experience," and Utah never again failed to elect senators. Another concern was that when deadlocks occurred, state legislatures found themselves unable to conduct their normal business; James Christian Ure, writing in the South Texas Law Review, notes that this did not in fact occur. In a deadlock situation, state legislatures would deal with the matter by holding "one vote at the beginning of the day—then the legislators would continue with their normal affairs".
There was also a feeling that state legislative elections themselves had become dominated by the business of picking senators. Senator John H. Mitchell noted that the Senate became the "vital issue" in all legislative campaigns, with the policy stances and qualifications of state legislative candidates ignored by voters who were more interested in the indirect Senate election. To remedy this, some state legislatures created "advisory elections" that served as de facto general elections, allowing legislative campaigns to focus on local issues.
Calls for a constitutional amendment regarding Senate elections started in the early 19th century, with Henry R. Storrs in 1826 proposing an amendment to provide for popular election. Similar amendments were introduced in 1829 and 1855, with the "most prominent" proponent being Andrew Johnson, who raised the issue in 1868 and considered the idea's merits "so palpable" that no additional explanation was necessary. The 1860s also saw the first major Congressional disputes over the issue, with the House and Senate voting to veto the appointment of John P. Stockton to the Senate due to his approval by a plurality rather than a majority. In reaction, the Congress passed a bill in July 1866 that required state legislatures to elect senators by an absolute majority.
By the 1890s, support for the introduction of direct election for the Senate had substantially increased, and reformers worked on two fronts. On the first front, the Populist Party incorporated the direct election of senators into its Omaha Platform, adopted in 1892. In 1908, Oregon passed the first law that based the selection of U.S. senators on a popular vote. Oregon was soon followed by Nebraska. Proponents for popular election noted that ten states already had non-binding primaries for Senate candidates, in which the candidates would be voted on by the public, effectively serving as advisory referenda instructing state legislatures how to vote; reformers campaigned for more states to introduce a similar method.
William Randolph Hearst opened a nationwide popular readership for direct election of U.S. Senators in a 1906 series of articles using flamboyant language attacking “The Treason of the Senate” in his “Cosmopolitan Magazine”. David Graham Philips, one of those yellow journalists Teddy Roosevelt called “muckrakers”, described Nelson Aldrich of Rhode Island as the principal “traitor” among the “scurvy lot” in control of the Senate by theft, perjury and bribes corrupting the state legislatures to gain election to the Senate. A few state legislatures began to petition the Congress for direct election of senators. By 1893, the House had the two-thirds vote for just such an amendment. However, when the joint resolution reached the Senate, it failed from neglect, as it did again in 1900, 1904 and 1908; each time the House approved the appropriate resolution, and each time it died in the Senate.
On the second national legislative front, reformers worked towards a constitutional amendment, which was strongly supported in the House of Representatives but initially opposed by the Senate—Bybee notes that the state legislatures, who would lose power if the reforms went through, were supportive of the campaign. By 1910, 31 state legislatures had passed resolutions calling for a constitutional amendment allowing direct election, and in the same year ten Republican senators who were opposed to reform were forced out of their seats, acting as a "wake-up call to the Senate".
Reformers included William Jennings Bryan, while opponents counted respected figures such as Elihu Root and George Frisbie Hoar amongst their number; Root cared so strongly about the issue that after the passage of the Seventeenth Amendment, he refused to stand for re‑election to the Senate. Bryan and the reformers argued for popular election through highlighting perceived flaws with the existing system, specifically corruption and electoral deadlocks, and through arousing populist sentiment. Most important was the populist argument; that there was a need to "Awaken, in the senators...a more acute sense of responsibility to the people", which it was felt they lacked; election through state legislatures was seen as an anachronism that was out of step with the wishes of the American people, and one that had led to the Senate becoming "a sort of aristocratic body – too far removed from the people, beyond their reach, and with no special interest in their welfare".
Hoar replied that the people were both a less permanent and a less trusted body than state legislatures, and that moving the responsibility for the election of senators to them would see it passing into the hands of a body that "[lasted] but a day" before changing. Other counterarguments were that renowned senators could not have been elected directly, and that since a large number of senators had experience in the House, which was already directly elected, a constitutional amendment would be pointless. It was also seen as a threat to the rights and independence of the states, who were "sovereign, entitled...to have a separate branch of Congress...to which they could send their ambassadors". This was countered by the argument that a change in the mode in which senators were elected would not change their responsibilities.
The Senate freshman class of 1910 brought new hope to the reformers. Fourteen of the thirty newly elected senators had been elected through party primaries, which amounted to popular choice in their states. More than half of the states had some form of primary selection for the Senate. The Senate finally joined the House to submit the Seventeenth Amendment to the states for ratification, nearly ninety years after it first was presented to the Senate in 1826.
By 1912, 239 political parties at both the state and national level had pledged some form of direct election, and 33 states had introduced the use of direct primaries. Twenty-seven states had called for a constitutional convention on the subject, with 31 states needed to reach the threshold; Arizona and New Mexico each achieved statehood that year (bringing the total number of states to 48), and were expected to support the motion, while Alabama and Wyoming, already states, had passed resolutions in favor of a convention without formally calling for one.
In 1911, the House of Representatives passed House Joint Resolution 39 proposing a constitutional amendment for direct election of senators. However, it included a “race rider” meant to bar federal intervention in cases of racial discrimination among voters. When the resolution came before the Senate, a substitute resolution, one without the rider, as proposed by Joseph L. Bristow of Kansas. It was adopted by a vote of 64 to 24, with 4 not voting. Nearly a year later, the House accepted the change. The conference report that would become the Seventeenth Amendment was approved by the Senate 42 to 36 on April 12, 1912, and by the House 238 to 39, with 110 not voting on May 13, 1912.
Having been passed by Congress, the amendment was sent to the states for ratification and was ratified by:
The Seventeenth Amendment altered the process for electing United States Senators and changed the way vacancies would be filled. Under the original constitutional provision, state legislatures filled vacancies when a Senator left office before the end of the term; the Seventeenth Amendment provides that state legislatures can grant governors the right to make temporary appointments, which last until a special election is provided to fill the seat. The power to call such an election can also be granted to the governor. It also had an immediate and dramatic impact on the political composition of the U.S. Senate.
Before the Supreme Court required one-man one-vote in a 1964 case, rural counties and cities could be given equal weight in the state legislatures, enabling one rural vote to equal 200 city votes. The malapportioned state legislatures would have given the Republicans control of the Senate in the 1916 Senate elections. With direct election, each vote represented equally, the Democrats retained control of the Senate.
The reputation of corrupt and arbitrary state legislatures continued to decline as the Senate joined the House of Representatives implementing popular reforms. Judge Bybee has argued that the amendment led to complete "ignominy" for state legislatures without the props of a state-based check on Congress. Progressive measures were enacted to enable the federal government to supersede the discredited states repeatedly over decades. However, Schleiches argues that the separation of state legislatures and the Senate has had a beneficial effect on the states, as it has allowed state legislative campaigns to focus on local rather than national issues.
New Deal legislation is another example of expanding federal regulation overruling the state legislatures promoting their local state interests in coal, oil, corn and cotton. Ure agrees, saying that not only is each Senator now free to ignore his state's interests, Senators "have incentive to use their advice-and-consent powers to install Supreme Court justices who are inclined to increase federal power at the expense of state sovereignty". Over the first half of the 20th century, with a popularly elected Senate confirming nominations, both Republican and Democratic, the Supreme Court began to apply the Bill of Rights to the states, overturning state laws whenever they harmed individual state citizens.
Oklahoma, admitted to statehood in 1907, chose a Senator by legislative election three times: twice in 1907, when admitted, and once in 1908. In 1912, Oklahoma reelected Robert Owen by advisory popular vote.
New Mexico, admitted to statehood in 1912, chose only its first two Senators legislatively. Arizona, admitted to statehood in 1912, chose its first two Senators by advisory popular vote. Alaska, and Hawaii, admitted to statehood in 1959, have never chosen a U.S. Senator legislatively.
The first direct elections to the Senate following the Seventeenth Amendment being adopted were:
In Trinsey v. Pennsylvania (1991), the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit was faced with a situation where, following the death of Senator H. John Heinz III of Pennsylvania, Governor Robert P. Casey had provided for a replacement and for a special election that did not include a primary. A voter and prospective candidate, John S. Trinsey, Jr., argued that the lack of a primary violated the Seventeenth Amendment and his right to vote under the Fourteenth Amendment. These arguments were rejected by the Third Circuit, which ruled that the Seventeenth Amendment does not require primaries.
Another subject of analysis is whether statutes restricting the authority of governors to appoint temporary replacements are constitutional. Vikram Amar, writing in the Hastings Constitutional Law Quarterly, claims that Wyoming's requirement that its governor fill a senatorial vacancy by nominating a person of the same party as the person who vacated that Senate seat violates the Seventeenth Amendment. This is based on the text of the Seventeenth Amendment, which states that "the legislature of any state may empower the executive thereof to make temporary appointments". The amendment only empowers the legislature to delegate the authority to the governor and, once that authority has been delegated, does not permit the legislature to intervene. The authority is to decide whether or not the governor shall have the power to appoint temporary senators, not in what fashion he should do so. Sanford Levinson, in his rebuttal to Amar, argues that rather than engaging in a textual interpretation, those examining the meaning of constitutional provisions should interpret them in the fashion that provides the most benefit, and that legislatures being able to restrict gubernatorial appointment authority provides a substantial benefit to the states.
Due to the controversy over the impact of the Seventeenth Amendment, there has been advocacy for both reform and repeal of the Seventeenth Amendment. With the commencement of the Obama Administration in 2009, four sitting Democratic senators left the Senate for executive branch positions: Barack Obama (President), Joe Biden (Vice President), Hillary Rodham Clinton (Secretary of State), and Ken Salazar (Secretary of the Interior). Controversies developed about the successor appointments made by Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich and New York Governor David Paterson. This created interest in abolishing Senate appointment by the governor. Accordingly, Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and Representative David Dreier of California proposed an amendment to remove this power; Senators John McCain and Dick Durbin became co-sponsors, as did Representative John Conyers. The Tea Party movement has been arguing for repealing the Seventeenth Amendment entirely, claiming that it would protect states' rights and reduce the power of the federal government.
See Bybee, p. 536.
Politics, like nature, abhorred a vacuum, so senators felt the pressure to do something, namely enact laws. Once senators were no longer accountable to and constrained by state legislatures, the maximizing function for senators was unrestrained; senators almost always found in their own interest to procure federal legislation, even to the detriment of state control of traditional state functions.