Voters have elected their senators in the privacy of the voting booth since 1913. The framers of the Constitution, however, did not intend senators to be elected in this way, and included in Article I, section 3, "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." The election of delegates to the Constitutional Convention established the precedent for state selection. The framers believed that in electing senators, state legislatures would cement their tie with the national government, which would increase the chances for ratifying the Constitution. They also expected that senators elected by state legislatures would be able to concentrate on the business at hand without pressure from the populace.
This process seemed to work well until the mid-1850s. At that time, growing hostilities in various states resulted in vacant Senate seats. In Indiana, for example, the conflict between Democrats in the southern half of the state and the emerging Republican party in the northern half prevented the election of any candidate, thereby leaving the Senate seat vacant for two years. This marked the beginning of many contentious battles in state legislatures, as the struggle to elect senators reflected the increasing tensions over slavery and states' rights which led to the Civil War.
After the Civil War, problems in senatorial elections by the state legislatures multiplied. In one case in the late 1860s, the election of Senator John Stockton of New Jersey was contested on the grounds that he had been elected by a plurality rather than a majority in the state legislature. Stockton based his defense on the observation that not all states elected their senators in the same way, and presented a report that illustrated the inconsistency in state elections of senators. In response, Congress passed a law in 1866 regulating how and when senators were elected in each state. This was the first change in the process of senatorial elections created by the Founders. The law helped but did not entirely solve the problem, and deadlocks in some legislatures continued to cause long vacancies in some Senate seats.
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.
The impetus for reform began as early as 1826, when direct election of senators was first proposed. In the 1870s, voters sent a petition to the House of Representatives for a popular election. From 1893 to 1902, momentum increased considerably. Each year during that period, a constitutional amendment to elect senators by popular vote was proposed in Congress, but the Senate fiercely resisted change, despite the frequent vacancies and disputed election results. In the mid-1890s, the Populist party incorporated the direct election of senators into its party platform, although neither the Democrats nor the Republicans paid much notice at the time. In the early 1900s, one state initiated changes on its own. Oregon pioneered direct election and experimented with different measures over several years until it succeeded in 1907. Soon after, Nebraska followed suit and laid the foundation for other states to adopt measures reflecting the people's will. Senators who resisted reform had difficulty ignoring the growing support for direct election of senators.
After the turn of the century, momentum for reform grew rapidly. William Randolph Hearst expanded his publishing empire with Cosmopolitan, and championed the cause of direct election with muckraking articles and strong advocacy of reform. 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.
Increasingly, senators were elected based on state referenda, similar to the means developed by Oregon. By 1912, as many as twenty-nine states elected senators either as nominees of their party's primary or in a general election. As representatives of a direct election process, the new senators supported measures that argued for federal legislation, but in order to achieve reform, a constitutional amendment was required. In 1911, Senator Joseph Bristow from Kansas offered a resolution, proposing a constitutional amendment. The idea also enjoyed strong support from Senator William Borah of Idaho, himself a product of direct election. Eight southern senators and all Republican senators from New England, New York, and Pennsylvania opposed Senator Bristow's resolution. The Senate approved the resolution largely because of the senators who had been elected by state-initiated reforms, many of whom were serving their first term, and therefore may have been more willing to support direct election. After the Senate passed the amendment, which represented the culmination of decades of debate about the issue, the measure moved to the House of Representatives.
The House initially fared no better than the Senate in its early discussions of the proposed amendment. Much wrangling characterized the debates, but in the summer of 1912 the House finally passed the amendment and sent it to the states for ratification. The campaign for public support was aided by senators such as Borah and political scientist George H. Haynes, whose scholarly work on the Senate contributed greatly to passage of the amendment.
Connecticut's approval gave the Seventeenth Amendment the required three-fourths majority, and it was added to the Constitution in 1913. 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.
The 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution:
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.