Congratulations to Daniel Gade, who handily won the primary on June 23 to become Virginia’s Republican nominee for the US Senate. He will face Democrat incumbent Mark Warner in the general election in November. But primaries and general elections were not what the founders of our country, the authors of our Constitution, envisioned when it came to electing Senators.
The original document says in Article I, Section 3, paragraph 1, “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 Seventeenth Amendment – ratified on April 8, 1913 – changes who chooses Senators by stating “The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State… [so far identical to the original, but here comes the change] …elected by the people thereof, for six years; and each /senator shall have one vote….”
It seems like a simple change, having the people choose Senators rather than the legislatures. But let’s think about why the original authors chose to have the legislatures choose.
Our Congress was designed in a way that resolved an argument between large states and small. States with small populations did not want to be dominated by large population states, so they demanded equal representation. But the states with large populations wanted their individual citizens to receive representation equal to the citizens of states with small populations. The solution was ingenious. There would be a House of Representatives to provide equal representation for all citizens no matter in which state they lived. The Senate would provide equal representation to all states no matter how big or small their population. To that end, members of the House of Representatives were to be elected by the people, and the members of the Senate were to be elected by the legislatures of the states. Brilliant!
More importantly, because the new Constitution gave the federal government more power than it had been given under the Articles of Confederation that it replaced, having state legislatures elect the senators reassured anti-federalists that there would be some protection against the federal government overpowering the individual states and usurping their powers. The Senate was to be a body of “ambassadors” from the states to the federal government. These ambassadors – appointed and authorized by the separate state governments – had the authority to approve international treaties, cabinet appointments, ambassadors, and judges, and other decisions, on behalf of the states, thus allowing the states to keep the federal government under control. If a Senator started voting contrary to the best interests of his state, the legislature – in its efforts to put the interests of the state first – could replace their Senators as necessary. States’ rights were protected, senators voted as representatives of the state, and the federal government was held in check.
We lost that with the Seventeenth Amendment. Proponents of popular election of senators said that legislative selection was open to corruption and electoral deadlocks. The people did not have sufficient time to consider the end results of passing this amendment as it was ratified less than a year after it was first proposed by Congress. Had the people had opportunity to put more thought into the amendment, they would have realized that corruption is a function of men not of legislatures or elections. Corrupt men exist no matter the circumstances. And if a legislature wants to endure a stalemate regarding who will be their senators, then they can go without full representation at the federal level until their citizens start taking action to force their legislators to do their jobs.
The trouble with the Seventeenth Amendment is that now senators don’t have to be good or able or much of anything other than well known. The only skill they need is the ability to sell themselves to enough voters to win an election. The average citizen does not take the time to know the individuals who are running for office. They generally go with what they read on a mailer or because a friend supports that candidate or because they recognize the name. Flyers, campaign teams, and name recognition all take money. That means only rich people or people who can raise money – often by selling themselves or their votes – have a chance at becoming a senator. Too many highly qualified people will never consider representing their states because they don’t have the money or the inclination to try to make people like them. It just isn’t worth it to them. Instead we get too many people who speak well regardless of whether they are worth anything. Not every senator is like that, but too many are, and that is a major reason we have a swamp in Washington, D.C. We would do ourselves a favor by repealing the Seventeenth Amendment so that legislatures could elect senators based on quality rather than popularity.
Steve “Doc” Troxel, Ph.D.