April 8, 1913 – Seventeenth Amendment Wins Approval of Required Three-Fourths of State Legislatures

Before the passage of this amendment, U.S. senators were selected by state legislatures as directed by Article I, Section 3 of the Constitution, which holds that “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.”

A number of problems arose from this method, including political wrangles that led to seats going empty for long periods. Support gradually increased for the direct election of senators by the voters.

The first change came in 1866, when Congress passed a law regulating how and when senators would be elected in each state. But it did not solve the problem entirely. As the Senate Historical Office observes:

Intimidation and bribery marked some of the states’ selection of senators. Nine bribery cases were brought before the Senate between 1866 and 1906. In addition, forty-five deadlocks occurred in twenty states between 1891 and 1905, resulting in numerous delays in seating senators. In 1899, problems in electing a senator in Delaware were so acute that the state legislature did not send a senator to Washington for four years.”

Each year from 1893 to 1902, they report, a constitutional amendment to elect senators by popular vote was proposed in Congress, but the Senate fiercely resisted change.

In the early 1900s, states started to initiate changes on their own. Momentum for reform on the national level increased. William Randolph Hearst got into the game, championing the cause of direct election with muckraking articles and strong advocacy of reform. The Senate Historical Office relates what happened next:

Hearst hired a veteran reporter, David Graham Phillips, who wrote scathing pieces on senators, portraying them as pawns of industrialists and financiers. The pieces became a series titled ‘The Treason of the Senate,’ which appeared in several monthly issues of the magazine in 1906. These articles galvanized the public into maintaining pressure on the Senate for reform.”

By 1912, as many as twenty-nine states elected senators either as nominees of their party’s primary or in a general election. But a constitutional amendment was still required for a nationwide direct election process.

In 1911, Senator Joseph Bristow from Kansas offered a resolution proposing a constitutional amendment, and gained support from others who had come to the Senate via direct election. After the Senate passed the amendment, it went to the House, where it was finally approved in the summer of 1912 and sent to the states for ratification.

Connecticut’s approval gave the Seventeenth Amendment the required three-fourths majority, and it was added to the Constitution on this date in 1913. It was declared part of the Constitution, the 17th Amendment, on May 31 by Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan.

The following year marked the first time all senatorial elections were held by popular vote.

The Seventeenth Amendment restates the first paragraph of Article I, section 3 of the Constitution and provides for the election of senators by replacing the phrase “chosen by the Legislature thereof” with “elected by the people thereof.” In addition, it allows the governor or executive authority of each state, if authorized by that state’s legislature, to appoint a senator in the event of a vacancy, until a general election occurs.

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