How Does a Senator Become a Senator? Direct Election and the 17th Amendment

Campaign signs for U.S. Senate candidates attempting to win popular election Campaign signs for U.S. Senate candidates attempting to win popular election (click for source)

Most Americans have heard of the Lincoln-Douglas debates during the Illinois elections in 1858. What fewer realize is that nobody in Illinois that year was voting for either Abraham Lincoln or Stephen A. Douglas. The people of that state were voting for their state legislatures, who in turn elected the Senator. Lincoln and Douglas's jobs were simply to travel through Illinois and stump for their respective parties. In the actual 1858 U.S. Senate election, Stephan A. Douglas won 54 votes from the Illinois legislature, and Abraham Lincoln won 46.

This is because no U.S. Senator was elected directly by the voters until the ratification of the 17th Amendment, in 1913. Until that time, as directed by Article 1, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution, all Senators were elected by their state legislatures. It was no accident that this was the case. The framers of the U.S. Constitution desired a U.S. Senate that was remote from the popular passions of the American voter, such that the Senate would remain a more sober and impartial actor in resolving the political problems of the nation. The relevant clause of the Constitution states "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."

By the late 1800s, many people had lost faith in the state legislatures' ability to appoint honest, qualified Senators. The process was prone to corruption by the business interests of the day, who could secure their desired appointments to the U.S. Senate by securing corrupt representatives at the state level. Progressives denounced this breach of the democratic ideal and made the direct election of Senators a key goal of the movement. One muckraker, David Graham Phillips, aroused much emotion with his 1906 series "Treason of the Senate". Phillips's goal was to document the bribery, fraud, and corruption that was widespread in state legislatures and in the U.S. Senate. Two sitting Senators, Joseph Burton and John Mitchell, were convicted of corruption charges shortly before the "Treason of the Senate" series.

It was not long before an amendment was finally proposed to require the direct election of all U.S. Senators by the public. This would become the 17th Amendment. Support for the 17th Amendment was widespread. Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, and William Howard Taft all gave it their blessing during the 1912 election, by which point its ratification seemed assured. It was adopted on April 8, 1913.

The 17th Amendment also allows the Governor of a state to appoint a Senator temporarily if a vacancy occurs. This became a famous incident of Illinois politics in 2008, after the election of Senator Barack Obama as President. The Governor at that time, Rod Blagojevich, was caught by the FBI attempting to solicit bribes for the vacant seat, and he was eventually sentenced to 14 years in federal prison. Some political figures have argued for a further amendment to the Constitution to prevent this situation. Others believe the 17th Amendment has overly weakened the power of the states in relation to the the federal government.

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