The 17th Amendment to the United States Constitution, enacted on April 8, 1913, allows Senators to be elected through popular voting by the people of each state. This amendment supersedes Article I, Section 3 of the Constitution, which specified that Senators were to be elected by the states’ legislators. It also allows vacant senate seats to be temporarily filled by appointment of the state’s governor, and sets a six-year term. To explore this concept, consider the 17th Amendment definition.
Definition of 17th Amendment
- The U.S. Constitutional amendment that establishes the election of two senators for each state by popular vote, and sets a term of six years.
1913 U.S. Constitution
What is the 17th Amendment
The 17th Amendment sets forth provisions of the original laws regarding the appointment of United States senators. The amendment allows for senators to be elected via popular vote, which is the vote of the people, rather than by state legislatures. It also changes the procedures for temporarily filling senate vacancies by allowing the governor of the state to appoint an individual to fill the vacant senate seat until a special election can take place. This prevents the government from taking powers away from the states.
17th Amendment Summary
The 17th Amendment was put in place in an effort to reduce corruption at the state political level. Prior to implementation of the Amendment, the Senate had become popularly known as “the millionaires club,” as many believed senators bought their way into office with well-placed donations to state legislators. As the people began losing faith in this governmental system, the 17th Amendment was enacted.
The new system allowed the people to elect their senators, and specified that such election would be for a period of only six years. In the event a vacancy occurred in the Senate, the state’s legislature appoints a temporary replacement until such time as an election can be held.
Amendment XVII 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.”
17th Amendment History
Originally, Article I, Section 3, clauses 1 and 2 of the Constitution, gave state legislatures the power to elect senators to term of six years. State size did not matter, as each state is entitled to representation by two senators. The reasoning of the founding fathers in having each state’s government appoint federal senators was to ensure state governments had a role in the governing of the nation.
Constitutional amendments began being introduced by reformers as early as the 1820s. Progressives lobbied for changes around the country, such as improving moral standards, altering educational standards, and changing the way Senators were chosen to fill Senate seats. William Jennings Bryan led the way for the reforms and he later went on to become a House Representative and Secretary of State. During this reform era, Bryan ran for president three times, in 1896, 1900, and 1904, but lost each time.
By the early 1900s, 31 states has passed motions calling for reforms. Within 12 years, 239 political parties around the country pledged to hold direct elections, and 33 states began using direct primary elections. This led to a proposal to mandate direct elections for senatorial seats bring introduced to Congress. Congress passed the proposal on May 13, 1912, and it was sent to each state for ratification. Within a year, the Amendment had been ratified, making it the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The amendment was formally adopted on May 31, 1913.
Article I, Section 3, Clauses 1 and 2
The 17th Amendment superseded Article I, Section 3, Clauses 1 and 2 of the United States Constitution, which originally read:
“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.”
“Immediately after they shall be assembled in Consequence of the first Election, they shall be divided as equally as may be into three Classes. The Seats of the Senators of the first Class shall be vacated at the Expiration of the second Year, of the second Class at the Expiration of the fourth Year, and of the third Class at the Expiration of the sixth Year, so that one third may be chosen every second Year; and if Vacancies happen by Resignation, or otherwise, during the Recess of the Legislature of any State, the Executive thereof may make temporary Appointments until the next Meeting of the Legislature, which shall then fill such Vacancies.”
Ratification by the States
Congress proposed the 17th Amendment in 1911. On April 12, 1912, it was approved by the Senate with a 42 to 36 vote. The House of Representatives approved it with a 238 to 39 vote on May 13, 1912. The following states ratified it on:
- Massachusetts – May 22, 1912
- Arizona – June 3, 1912
- Minnesota – June 10, 1912
- New York – January 15, 1913
- Kansas – January 17, 1913
- Oregon – January 23, 1913
- North Carolina – January 25, 1913
- California – January 28, 1913
- Michigan – January 28, 1913
- Iowa – January 30, 1913
- Montana – January 30, 1913
- Idaho – January 31, 1913
- West Virginia – February 4, 1913
- Colorado – February 5, 1913
- Nevada – February 6, 1913
- Texas – February 7, 1913
- Washington – February 7, 1913
- Wyoming – February 8, 1913
- Arkansas – February 11, 1913
- Maine – February 11, 1913
- Illinois – February 13, 1913
- North Dakota – February 14, 1913
- Wisconsin – February 18, 1913
- Indiana – February 19, 1913
- New Hampshire – February 19, 1913
- Vermont – February 19, 1913
- South Dakota – February 19, 1913
- Oklahoma – February 24, 1913
- Ohio – February 25, 1913
- Missouri – March 7, 1913
- New Mexico – March 13, 1913
- Nebraska – March 14, 1913
- New Jersey – March 17, 1913
- Tennessee – April 1, 1913
- Pennsylvania – April 2, 1913
- Connecticut – April 8, 1913
- Louisiana – June 11, 1914
- Alabama – April 11, 2002
- Delaware – July 1, 2010
- Maryland – April 1, 2012
- Rhode Island – June 20, 2014
The Amendment was rejected by the Utah Legislature on February 26, 1913. Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Virginia took no actions concerning the Amendment.
Case Law Pertaining to the 17th Amendment
John Heinz III, a Pennsylvania Senator, died on April 4, 1991 when his chartered plane crashed. According to the 17th Amendment of the United States Constitution, state legislatures have the authority to allow the governor to fill a temporarily vacant senatorial seat until a replacement can be elected by the people, through a special election. After the death of the senator, Governor Robert P. Casey signed a writ declaring a special election to be held on November 5th of that year, and temporarily appointed Harris Wofford to fill the vacant senate seat.
According to Pennsylvania law, a primary election did not need to be held, as the Democratic and Republican parties were allowed to select their own candidates to run for the senate seat. John S. Trinsey Jr., a potential senatorial candidate, challenged the law claiming that his right to vote for candidates had been violated, that right turned over to political parties.
Trinsey argued before the U.S. District Court that the state legislature prevented him from selecting a candidate of his choice when it gave political parties the power to select candidates. He filed a motion requesting that Wofford be removed from power. Counsel for the state argued that the Constitution did not require that a primary election be held in order to fill a senate seat vacancy.
The case was heard in in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania and the judge dismissed Trinsey’s motions. On June 10, 1991, however, the District Court ruled that the statue was unconstitutional as it violated both amendments. The court declared that the statue failed to ensure popular participation was used when selecting senatorial candidates.
The case then went to the court of appeals. The appeals court reversed the lower court’s ruling, stating that the 17th Amendment did not require special elections to be held in order to fill a vacant senate seat. It also ruled that the Amendment gave state legislatures broad discretion concerning how to hold the election, therefore the Constitution had not been violated. In December of that year, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case, doubtless because the special election had already been held, and so the point was no longer at controversy.
Related Legal Terms and Issues
- Amendment – An article that has been added to the Constitution of the United States.
- Authority – The right or power to make decisions, to give orders, or to control something or someone.
- Legislature – The legislative, or law-making, body of a country or state.