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Amending the Constitution: 100 Years of Direct Election

Amending the Constitution: 100 Years of Direct Election

Constitution Day is September 17.

The framers of the Constitution anticipated that future generations of Americans would need to change the U.S. Constitution. Article V provides two options for making amendments—through congressional action or by state constitutional conventions. While the Constitution has only been amended 27 times, more than 11,000 such measures have been introduced since 1789.

Constitutional Convention

When the framers convened in Philadelphia in 1787, they struggled over the question of who should elect United States senators. They considered several options, including selection by the House of Representatives and direct election by the people. Ultimately they decided on a method of election that had been utilized in selecting delegates to attend the Convention itself—election by the state legislatures.

In the early years of the nation, this system of indirect election of senators seemed to work well. After several decades, however, growing partisanship in some state legislatures resulted in contentious deadlocks that left Senate seats vacant. The impetus for reform began as early as 1826, when direct election of senators was first proposed, but it was not until the latter half of the 19th century that the system of indirect election came under constant fire. Despite the passage of a federal law in 1866 to regulate the election methods of the state legislatures, deadlocks and vacancies continued. Forty-five deadlocks occurred in 20 states between 1891 and 1905, resulting in numerous delays in seating senators. Intimidation and corruption also marked selection of senators. The Senate considered nine bribery cases between 1866 and 1906.

A Needed Change for the Senatorial Lobby.

Despite the growing number of calls for reform, the Senate itself resisted change, forcing states to initiate reforms on their own. Oregon pioneered direct election and experimented with different measures over several years until it succeeded in 1907. Under the so-called "Oregon Model," candidates for the state legislature pledged to support the Senate candidate who won the popular vote. Soon after, Nebraska followed suit. Such experiments laid the foundation for other states to adopt measures reflecting the people's will. By 1911 more than half the states were utilizing some element of popular election in the selection of senators.

By the early 20th century, persistent petitioning by state legislatures, the pressures of public opinion, and growing support within the Senate community broke down the barriers to allow for passage of the Seventeenth Amendment. Senators who resisted reform had difficulty ignoring the growing support for direct election. As more senators came to the Senate through the new state-instituted measures, support for a constitutional amendment grew in the chamber. On June 12, 1911, the Senate finally agreed to the proposed amendment. The Seventeenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was adopted on April 8, 1913, when Connecticut became the 36th state to ratify, fulfilling the three-fourths requirement stipulated in Article V of the Constitution.

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