The Seventeenth Amendment established the direct election of U.S. senators by the voters in each state. Previously, Article I, Section 3 of the Constitution called for the appointment of senators by state legislatures. This amendment was created during the Progressive Era as a result of the public’s dissatisfaction with the corruption and inefficiency involved in the state legislatures’ appointments of senators.
Calls for direct popular election of senators appeared in the House of Representatives in 1826, but none were successful. In 1866, Congress passed a law to regulate how and when senators were elected in each state, in response to disputed elections in Indiana and New Jersey, but did not change appointments by state legislatures. After the Civil War, disputes among state legislators over Senate elections led to deadlocks, leaving some Senate seats empty for long periods of time. Therefore, reformers in many states began to call for changes to the system of electing senators. Oregon established measures in the early 1900s to allow senators to be elected by popular vote, and several other states later followed suit.
In 1911, popularly-elected Senator Joseph Bristow from Kansas proposed the Seventeenth Amendment as a resolution. There was significant opposition, but the Senate approved the amendment, largely due to the votes of senators who had been recently popularly elected. The House passed the amendment and sent it to the states for ratification in the spring of 1912. It was officially ratified on July 15, 1913.
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.
The Seventeenth Amendment states that senators will be elected to six-year terms by popular vote. The amendment restates the first paragraph of Article I, Section 3 of the Constitution and replaces the phrase “chosen by the Legislature thereof” with “elected by the people thereof.” It also allows the executive authority of each state to temporarily appoint a senator in the event of a vacancy until a general election occurs if they have authorization from the state’s legislature. However, it specifies that the amendment does not affect the election or term of senators elected before it is officially ratified.
Major Court Cases
Since its ratification, there have been several Supreme Court cases further clarifying the Seventeenth Amendment’s powers and limitations.
In 1921, in Newberry v. United States, the Court notes that even though the Seventeenth Amendment changed who elects senators, it did not change Article I, Section 4 of the Constitution, which gives states the power to determine the time, place, and manner of holding Senate elections, unless alterations are made by Congress.
In 1928, in Reed v. County Commissioners of Delaware County, the Supreme Court held that the Seventeenth Amendment acknowledges a federal right to elect senators and that the Senate is authorized to protect these rights, which means that a Senate committee has the authority to judge elections, votes, and qualifications of members.
In 1995, in U.S. Term Limits v. Thornton, the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution prohibits states from adopting congressional qualifications in addition to those already established in the Constitution. The Court also notes that the adoption of the Seventeenth Amendment eliminated state power over the election of senators, so the senators are to be elected directly by the people with no interference.
Modern controversy surrounds whether it is time to repeal the Seventeenth Amendment. In the last decade, a number of conservatives have called for a repeal of the Seventeenth Amendment because they believe it undermines the authority of the states and gives the federal government too much power. In 2004, Georgia Senator Zell Miller, a conservative Democrat, introduced a resolution calling for the repeal of the Seventeenth Amendment after announcing his retirement. He claimed that “direct elections of Senators … allowed Washington’s special interests to call the shots, whether it is filling judicial vacancies, passing laws, or issuing regulations.” He also argued that the amendment allows special interest groups and their fundraising abilities to elect U.S. senators. However, though the idea has come up in some campaigns, it has not become much of a voting issue.
The Seventeenth Amendment altered the process for electing United States senators and changed the way vacancies would be filled. From this amendment, Americans gained the right to directly vote for their senators. Therefore, the Seventeenth Amendment remains important to ensure that every vote is represented equally.