Seventeenth Amendment

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Seventeenth Amendment

The Seventeenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution 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.

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, which was ratified in 1913, provided for the direct election of U.S. senators by citizens. Until 1913 state legislatures had elected U.S. senators. Ratification of the amendment followed decades of insistence that the power to elect senators should be placed in the hands of ordinary voters. This successful struggle marked a major victory for progressivism—the early twentieth-century political movement dedicated to pushing government at all levels toward reform. In addition to serving the longer-range goals of the reformers, the campaign on behalf of the amendment sought to end delays and what was widely perceived as corruption in the election of senators by state legislatures.

From 1787 until 1913, the U.S. Constitution specified that state legislatures would elect U.S. senators. Article 1, Section 3, reads:

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.

In giving the elective power to the states, the framers of the Constitution hoped to protect state independence. The framers were suspicious of majority rule and sought to restrain what they regarded as the potentially destructive forces of democracy. Thus, while providing for direct election to the House of Representatives, they countered this expression of the people's will by allowing legislatures to select members of the Senate. At the Constitutional Convention, the proposal for state election of senators aroused no controversy. Only one proposal for senatorial election by popular vote was offered, and it was soundly defeated. The states were receptive and did not protest when the Constitution was sent to them for ratification. Nor, over the next decades, did the system incur more than occasional criticism.

By the late nineteenth century, however, political opinion was changing in favor of a more fully participatory democracy. Starting in the 1880s, the concentration of elective power in the hands of state legislatures provoked criticism. The critics complained that the legislatures were dominated by party bosses who prevented citizen participation and thwarted popular political action. The critics also pointed to practical and ethical problems: lengthy deadlocks, which sometimes resulted when legislatures could not agree upon a candidate, and alleged Bribery. Progressivism, the reform movement that sought to address social inequities by broadening government power, helped to bring about this change in outlook. Under the pressure of the Progressive movement and the popular belief that citizens were capable of choosing their own senators, the states began to bend. By the turn of the century, several states were holding popular elections that served as advisories to the legislatures in selecting senators.

Over the next decade, increasing calls for change reached Congress, where the resistance to change was considerable. Federal lawmakers argued that direct election would strip states of their independence and sovereignty. The pressure continued to increase, however, until by 1910, thirty-one state legislatures had requested that Congress hold a constitutional convention to propose an amendment. The next year Congress buckled and passed the amendment; within two years, the amendment had been ratified by the states. It read, in relevant part:

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.

Only ten states opposed ratification.

Ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment introduced significant changes to Congress. When states elected senators, they exercised the power of instruction—they could direct their senators to vote a certain way on important matters. The Seventeenth Amendment formally ended this power, for now senators were beholden to the voters. Historians and legal scholars continue to debate the other effects of the amendment. Some view it as a grave surrender of state sovereignty; others see it as a benign or even positive outgrowth of popular will. Direct election has seemingly contributed to the decline in the power of party bosses, but its impact upon the actual practice of Senate business has been negligible.

Further readings

Bybee, Jay S. 1997. "Ulysses at the Mast: Democracy, Federalism, and the Sirens' Song of the Seventeenth Amendment." Northwestern University Law Review 91 (winter).

Kochan, Donald J. 2003. "State Laws and the Independent Judiciary: An Analysis of the Effects of the Seventeenth Amendment on the Number of Supreme Court Cases Holding State Laws Unconstitutional." Albany Law Review 66 (summer).

Rossum, Ralph A. 2001. Federalism, the Supreme Court, and the Seventeenth Amendment: The Irony of Constitutional Democracy. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books.

Zywicki, Todd J. 1997. "Beyond the Shell and Husk of History: The History of the Seventeenth Amendment and its Implications for Current Reform Proposals." Cleveland State Law Review 45 (spring): 165–234.

——. 1994. "Senators and Special Interests: A Public Choice Analysis of the Seventeenth Amendment." Oregon Law Review 73 (winter).


Congress of the United States.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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