17th Amendment: What is the 17th Amendment?
The 17th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States was passed in 1913. It changed the way in which United States Senators were elected. But what exactly did it change and how?
What does the 17th Amendment Say?
According to 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. The electors in each State shall have the qualifications requisite for electors of the most numerous branch of the State legislatures.”. The amendment also goes on to describe what happens in the event of vacancies. It allows for the state executive to fill such vacancies temporarily so that seats would not go empty for months on end. And how those elections will be dealt with. Proposed a year earlier in 1912, it came into effect on April 8th, 1913 when President Woodrow Wilson was in office.
Changing How Senators Were Elected
For as many as 125 years after the federal government first came into existence, senators had not been directly voted for by the people of the nation. Instead, state legislatures picked senators, as required by the Constitution. As per the text of the 17th Amendment, from that day on, senators would be picked by the people of that state. This would also help make senators more accountable to the citizens.
Nearly A Century in the Making
A similar change had been suggested nearly a 100 years earlier, in 1826. However, it was perhaps too early for anyone to have spotted potential problems with the existing system. As the years wore on, the issues with the existing system became more obvious. Deadlocks in state legislatures over senatorial picks meant that it could sometimes be months that a senators position would lie vacant as debates ensued.
In some cases, this ran into years! Due to the power balance and politics of it all, it also meant that sometimes, senators could become mere puppets in the hands of state legislatures. All of this and more caused the movement for this amendment to gain momentum.
It is also important to note that before this, many States, recognizing this issue, had worked out ways to help give voters a greater degree of control on how Senators were selected even when the amendment wasn’t on the horizon. For instance, voters could indicate a preference for party candidates for the senatorial seat while casting their votes in primary elections. While the Constitution at that point didn’t require the legislature to act on this information, there was a common understanding that the winning candidate of the majority would be elected.
The Necessity for the 17th Amendment
While states had created means to work with the existing system, the 17th Amendment removed any element of doubt or interpretation on this front transferring the power to vote for the senator, to the people. The need for this was evident. Without the 17th Amendment anyone with special interests, like big corporations, could influence the selection of senators. Also, there would be frequent turnover if there were party issues or changes in state-level party leadership. And as mentioned earlier, instances of vacancies lying unfilled for months or years could continue. This could, of course, affect the effectiveness of the Senate to carry out its duties with constant changes of people and the absence of representation from several states.
In more recent times, however, there has been a movement among a few conservative leaders and scholars to repeal this amendment. According to them, this amendment upsets the right balance of proper between the state and the federal government.