Facts About the Seventeenth Amendment
The Seventeenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified on April 8, 1913. It said that United States Senators would now be directly elected by popular vote.
It’s the only constitutional amendment that has significantly changed the structure of Congress as written in the original Constitution.
It took the power to appoint Senators from the state legislatures and gave that power directly to the voters in each state.
What does the Seventeenth Amendment say?
The Seventeenth Amendment is quite long. The most important part says:
“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.”
If you’re interested, you can read the full amendment here.
This language is very similar to Article I Section 3 of the Constitution which says, “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.”
As you can see, the major change is from “chosen by the legislature” to “elected by the people.”
Why the Seventeenth Amendment?
Changes to the structure of the federal government have been extremely rare since the Constitution was signed.
So, why was the election of Senators considered an important issue that needed to be amended?
Originally, the Framers of the Constitution wanted state legislatures to discuss and deliberate before choosing Senators.
This began to change around the 1830s, when politicians who wanted to become part of the Senate began campaigning for state legislative candidates.
People were often elected to the state legislature based on what candidate they would vote for in the Senate race.
Senate selection became inefficient and often corrupt. One famous example is when Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglass faced off for Illinois Senate in 1858, although neither was on the ballot.
The Seventeenth Amendment was a response to people becoming frustrated with the corruption and inconsistency of Senate elections.
A vote by the people would help prevent Senate elections from being driven by parties, political machines, and special interest groups.
Earlier Changes to Senate Elections
Even before the Seventeenth Amendment passed, many states took maters into their own hands to fix Senate elections.
Some states started holding direct primaries for Senate. This way, the state legislatures had less control over choosing their Senators.
In some states, the “Oregon System” was used. The Oregon System required state legislative candidates to say on the ballot if they would choose Senators according to the results of a formally non-binding election for Senator.
By 1908, 28 of the 45 states were using the Oregon System or another form of direct elections for Senate.
The Seventeenth Amendment made it official, and it was an extremely popular change to the Constitution.
Other Interesting Facts About the Seventeenth Amendment
Between 1890 and 1905, 31 state legislatures passed resolutions asking Congress to provide for the direct election of Senators.
Amendments to the Constitution that would allow for direct elections passed the House in every session between 1893 and 1912, but a few powerful Senators managed to hold off the amendment for over 20 years.
The Progressive movement was a major push for the Seventeenth Amendment. It supported several other changes to the structure of federal, state, and local governments.
In recent years, the Seventeenth Amendment has been criticized by some conservatives for taking an important power away from state legislatures.