Power to the People: 17th Amendment Lets Public Elect Senators
It was a long time coming, but American democracy took a big leap forward when the 17th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified on April 8, 1913, giving the public the right to directly elect United States senators. Originally, the Constitution called for state legislatures to elect senators, but efforts to transfer this power to the public began in 1826 and remained fairly constant until success was achieved in 1913, when Connecticut became the 36th state to ratify the 17th Amendment.
The framers of the Constitution regarded the role of senators as representing the interests of their respective states (whereas congressmen in the House of Representatives safeguarded the interests of the people in their respective districts). Because of their important role, senators were given six-year terms and exempted from the time, expense and complications of having to campaign for the public vote.
In time, however, it became apparent that special interests were manipulating state legislatures to select senators favorable to their cause or business. In the words of Kansas Senator Joseph L. Bristow reproduced in the newspaper article below, “The power of these great financial and industrial institutions can be very effectively used in the election of senators by legislators, and they have many times during recent years used that power in a most reprehensible and scandalous manner. They have spent enormous amounts of money in corrupting legislatures to elect to the Senate men of their own choosing.”
The Senate passed Senator Bristow’s direct election amendment in June of 1911. Nearly one year later, after lengthy debate, the House passed the amendment in May of 1912, and it was sent to the states for ratification by the secretary of state on May 16, 1912.
This article describing the ratification of the 17th Amendment also gives the history of congressional support for direct election of senators, starting in 1826. It was printed by the Aberdeen Daily American (Aberdeen, South Dakota) on April 9, 1913:
People May Now Vote on Amendment
Ratification of Amendment to Constitution, Regarding Direct Election of Senators, Completed by Michigan Vote [correction: Connecticut—ed.]
Over Sixty Years Ago That Proposals for the Direct Elections Started
Article Gives the History of the Big Fight That Has Been Made
Washington, April 8.—The new amendment to the Constitution, for the popular election of United States senators, is the seventeenth to be adopted. It reads:
“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.”
The amendment primarily transfers the power of electing senators from the state legislatures to the people at the polls. To effect this change it was necessary to alter the machinery for the filling of vacancies in the Senate.
Sixty Years Old
For more than sixty years proposals have been made to change the Constitution so as to provide for the direct election of senators. It was not, however, until June 24, 1911, that the Senate was induced for the first time in its history to give its consent to the change. On that day it voted to submit to the states the proposed amendment. The resolution to submit had already passed the House in a somewhat different form. Before adjournment of the session, both houses agreed to the language to be employed, and the resolution was deposited with the secretary of state May 16, 1912, for distribution among the states.
The original theory in establishing the choice of senators was that they represented the states, whereas the members of the House represented the people of their districts. It was because of this theory of the state as a unit that all states, large and small, were given equal representation in the Senate, Rhode Island having the same number as New York or Pennsylvania. In the theory of the Constitution framers this entity of the state was thus made more distinct under the federal system, and the state legislature was regarded as the suitable medium for expressing this state entity. Later it was contended that state entity would still be preserved if the people of the entire state, instead of the legislature, chose the senators, and this view has now been accepted as the basis of the new system.
First Action in 1826
In 1826 the first action was taken in Congress looking to a change. In that year Representative Storrs, of New York, introduced a resolution making senators elective by the people. Another resolution of similar import was introduced by Representative Wright, of Ohio, in 1829. In 1850 Senator Clemens, of Alabama, introduced the first senatorial direct election resolution in the Senate. Nothing resulted from these movements.
It was Andrew Johnson who revived congressional agitation for the direct election of senators. As a member of the House of Representatives, he introduced two resolutions for the change, and in 1860 renewed the agitation as a member of the Senate. In 1868, as president, he sent a special message to Congress advocating the measure, and then repeated his recommendations in his annual message.
The subject was revived in 1873, 1886 and 1888, but without success. In 1893 the House agreed to the proposition, as it did in the succeeding Congress, and still again in 1898, 1900 and 1912. The proposed change on none of these occasions won a favorable report from committees in the Senate.
With the House thus arrayed year after year in favor of the change, the Senate became the battleground. Senator Bristow, of Kansas, took the lead in advocacy of amending the Constitution along this line. In December, 1909, he introduced his first resolution. A year later he obtained a report from the committee, but a feature had been tacked onto his proposal which brought on a fight in the Senate, [and] threatened to kill the entire proposition. This interposed feature was to amend other provisions of the Constitution as to deprive the federal government of power to supervise the state regulations as to the time and manner of election. The votes of Southern senators threatened to defeat the main proposition if the federal government was given this power. Senator Root made a speech, in which he criticized the method employed by Southern states in depriving negroes of the right of suffrage. Senator Bacon replied that the federal government was being given the power once more to enact “force bills” and send armies and marshals into Southern states to intimidate voters. On February 28, just before the end of the session, the resolution was defeated by four votes.
Senator Bristow reintroduced the resolution in the special session immediately following. The fight of the preceding session was re-fought, but this time the friends of the resolution won by a vote of 64 to 24, or five more than the required two-thirds.
The House had passed a resolution which made it clear the federal government was not to interfere with senatorial elections in the states. For weeks the measure was in conference. Finally the House conferees receded and the House agreed to the Senate measure by a vote of 237 to 39.
Previous to this time, several states had taken the bit in their teeth by enacting laws which in effect did not wait for a constitutional amendment on the subject. Probably the most successful of these was adopted in Oregon. It virtually directed the members of the legislature to elect the person who received the majority vote at the regular election, when the placing of the name of a candidate for United States senator upon the tickets was authorized.
The control of legislatures by great corporations was assigned by Senator Bristow as one of the main reasons for the demanded change. “With the development during recent times of the great corporate interests of the country,” said he, “and the increased importance of legislation relating to their affairs, they have tenaciously sought to control the election of senators friendly to their interests. The power of these great financial and industrial institutions can be very effectively used in the election of senators by legislators, and they have many times during recent years used that power in a most reprehensible and scandalous manner. They have spent enormous amounts of money in corrupting legislatures to elect to the Senate men of their own choosing.”
One of the first speeches made in the Senate during the twenty-year crusade for the change in favor of the direct election was by Senator Turple, of Indiana. In that speech he declared that the election of senators by legislatures was the one blemish on the democracy which was embodied in the American government.
No legislation by Congress will be necessary to put the change into effect. It will be incumbent upon the various states to see to it that proper provision is made by the names of senators going on the regular ballots. Should any state fail to do so, it has been suggested that Congress might exercise its power of supervising that state’s voting regulations so as to require the name to be placed on the ballots.
The first senators to be elected by the new method will be those who take their seats for the term beginning March 4, 1915. They will be elected at the November elections of 1914.