The Constitution of the United States originally called for individual states to appoint their Senators in Congress, instead of having the people of each state vote for them. More than a century later, the Constitution was amended to give citizens the right to vote directly for their Senators, rather than electing the state representatives who would make the choice. Today, we’ll look at the rationale for the Constitution’s original method, the debate that lead to the 17th Amendment, and some current proposals to roll back that Amendment.
While the balance has shifted over time, one of the central ideas discussed at the Constitutional Convention was the relative power of the states and federal government, the principal known as federalism. The framers didn’t want to create a weak and ineffective federal government, as they had under the failed Articles of Confederation. But they also knew that they were representing individual states, which were reluctant to give up too much power. After all, once they drafted the Constitution, it would still have to be approved by each individual state government in order to be ratified.
The federalism debate was played out in every article of the Constitution, but perhaps none more so than Article I, establishing the Congress. Congress is divided into the House of Representatives and the Senate, each of which has a unique character. While the House is meant to move quickly and closely reflect the will of the people, the Senate is more deliberative and is meant to slow down the process of legislating. In particular, the Senate is designed to give individual states input into the legislative process. Each state has the same number of Senators, giving them equal voices as political peers. This is contrasted with the House, where seats are allocated by population instead of by state.
As in many bicameral systems, the goal was to have an upper house that would be more immune from popular will. Comparing their Senate to the House of Lords, the American founders argued that their chosen electoral system would ensure that only the best and most worthy politicians would end up in the Senate. Here, as elsewhere in the Constitution, the founders were wary of too much direct influence by the people or, more succinctly, too much democracy. So, in order to preserve more power for state governments and undercut the populist will of the people, they gave state legislatures the power to elect Senators.
These were the original arguments for the seemingly-awkward method of Senatorial elections. By having state governments choose their Senators, the Constitution tilts the balance of federalism back towards the states, and includes a counterweight to the overly-democratic House.
Over the course of the 19th century, as the balance of power in the federalist system shifted from the states to the federal government the role of the Senate elections changed. When more power was at the state level, the Senate elections were just one among many issues citizens considered when voting for their state legislature. However, as the importance of the Senators grew, the issue of the Senators overshadowed all other issues. Instead of voting based on important local issues, citizens were bringing national politics into the state and local level.
As these political changes were happening, the American economic landscape was also undergoing a shift started by the industrial revolution. More people were moving to cities, and more political power was being accumulated by the famous “political machines” that characterized turn-of-the-century American politics. This lead to another, more practical issue with the state legislatures.
In most states, the legislature of the state matches the Congress of the United States, with one branch apportioned by population and one by geography. The city political machines were able to influence the popular branches, but were stymied in the upper houses. The result: deadlock. More than twenty times, state legislatures were unable to agree on a bill naming a Senator to the Congress, and the seat sat empty.
All this lead to significant political momentum to change the election method in the Senate. State governments were moved to act because the national elections were dominating state politics, and the popular will (especially through the political machines) was lining up behind the move. The final obstacle was the Senate itself. Congressional action is required to propose Constitutional amendments, and several bills to change the Senate elections were passed in the House in the early 1900’s only to die in the Senate.
The 17th Amendment Passes
Such a large amount of political will cannot be denied forever. Although the Senators were reluctant to change the election methods (and likely lose their seats) they were eventually forced to vote for the measure that started the amendment process. As the Constitutional amendment process requires, after the measure passed the Congress it went to the individual states. Within a year (in 1914), the necessary two-thirds of the states had approved adding the following text as the 17th 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.
Although most Americans now take the 17th Amendment and popular elections for granted, there is a small but growing political movement to repeal it and return to the original method of choosing Senators. Proponents argue that the Amendment is partially responsible for the growing power of the federal government, and that a repeal would strengthen states’ rights and hinder the influence of populist politics.
While the repeal movement has yet to influence national politics, it is worth debating. As a representative democracy, the American government tries to balance between giving citizens their just role in government on the one hand, and limiting the power of demagogues and populists on the other. For the framers, one important way of accomplishing that was the indirect election of the Senate. With the 17th Amendment, the country altered the balance. Where do you think the balance should lie?