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Background

In the United States, the 17th amendment changed the election of senators from state legislatures to the popular vote:

Amendment XVII

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.

Of all the contemporary reasons for this amendment, one of the side effects was that more rural areas of states would have reduced power:

Ironically, however, big city party machines supported the Seventeenth Amendment, largely because state legislative apportionment gave greater representation to rural areas due to districting decisions in the absence of “one person, one vote” and because machine-controlled cities could more easily mobilize voters. Many big special interests supported it as well.

On a national context, this precise side effect was one of the main motives the founding fathers stated when creating the electoral college. Historians have also argued that the other stated issues of electoral deadlocks and legislative corruption were not widespread enough to serve as a de facto motivation for the amendment. This has lead me to ask...

Question

Given a key motivation behind the electoral college, why did the mirroring concern of small district representation not cause a widespread issue during the creation of the 17th amendment to the United States constitution?

  • Does not the Wikipedia article not give a sufficient answer? By the time of the 17th amendment, corrupt state legislatures picking senators was a bigger issue. – pboss3010 Aug 12 at 16:07
  • @pboss3010 If you read further in that section, there are historians who argue that it was not a large enough issue that would have been the prime mover behind the amendment's popularity. – isakbob Aug 12 at 16:08
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The 17th amendment was caused by a different problem of sorts. Prior to the 17th Amendment, Senators were appointed by State Legislatures. How did this work? Well, like any aspect of government in the United States, not efficiently. Even when one party was in a majority (51%) it might not be filibuster proof (60%-66%) majority, meaning that the minority party could block a senator's election and would often rely on needing a few of the opposition to cross the aisle to get the nominee elected... and many had to have both houses agree to do it too.

This led to the U.S. senate often going for long periods with no elected senator in office. Suppose a Senator who was elected in a Repubican Majority state legislature was up for re-election after the legislature flipped to the Democrats. The Democrats would not re-elect the senator, but the Republicans could still block the election of his replacement.

The change of direct elections by the people was seen as a compromise as it was better for the rural population to be disproportionately counted in an election than to not have any representation at all (The senate still voted, even if a state was down one or two votes overall). Even still, it was never a problem when Senator's were indirectly elected, because the people electing them still were directly elected by the people and the Senate is the House of the State Governments. If a party dominated the State Government because it was popular with the Urban residents, then it would pick a Senator who was more aligned with those of the Urban class anyway, even in compromise. There are states that are still more rural than urban even now and they would balance out the rural voice for the nation.

The rural also had a voice in the House of Representatives, which is a more local constituence than a whole state, so the rural blocks still had a reliable opposition since the Senate can do very little on it's own (mostly just advise and consent duties, which was strictly the running of the government and rarely something the people cared about... a list of famous and competent cabinet officers of the United States is not a lengthy read as those that are famous are rarely competent, and those that are competent are rarely famous).

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    You add in the aspect of "better to be disproportionately represented than not at all" to the issue of not having Senators in the legislature, which is a very good point. However, Like I stated in my comments to @pboss3010, there are historians that are doubtful is was the primary motivation behind this amendment. Also could you add sources to your answer? – isakbob Aug 12 at 18:03
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    @isakbob Wikipedia article on the Amendment. Scholars may debate that the reason was not as bad as it was made to be, but that was a prime reason behind the switch and the arguments for the switch not mattering. Just so my biases are laid out, I'm actually opposed to the direct election of senators and would like to see 17 repealed, but I have yet to find a solution to the initial problem of indirectly elected senators. I disagree, on principle, but in practice, I can't solve the problem. – hszmv Aug 12 at 18:24
  • I'll upvote because its not exactly a long article. When you have a moment, could you link to the relevent section and source it somewhere in your answer? – isakbob Aug 12 at 18:32
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Because Senators represent states, not districts

The purpose of Senators is to represent the interests of the sovereign states in these United States. The effects of what happen to rural districts is irrelevant, because Senators do not represent people in rural districts. Senators do not represent people anywhere. The place where people are represented is the House of Representatives.

This bit of context is key to understanding why the Senate and the House membership are divided the way they are, and why powers are split between them the way they are. States all have two senators regardless of their size, population, urban density, or whatever because they are equal members in what is supposed to be a union of states that have their own sources of sovereignty that have decided to give up certain powers in exchange for the benefits of cooperating. That's why the Senate's unique powers are very focused on things like approving treaties and federal officials, and don't include things that were considered to be important for people to be represented (e.g. all bills related to revenue, whether or not to start impeaching the President, and breaking an electoral college tie).

This is also why modern day complaints about the Senate not being representative of the electorate are misplaced; the point of Senate is not to represent people, but states.

  • Hello Joe, this seems to be a very good answer about the premise of why Senators are apportioned the way they are. However, could you add sources to this answer and how it relates directly to the 17th amendment? The same premise could have existed before the 17th amendment. – isakbob Aug 12 at 18:18
  • In theory, the Senate does not initiate tax bills. In practice, the House sometimes passes trivial bills that the Senate can gut and turn into tax bills. Both House and Senate approval is required for a tax bill to become law. – Jasper Aug 12 at 19:01
  • A correction: The House chooses the President if the Electoral College does not produce a majority vote for President. The Senate performs a similar role if the Electoral College does not produce a majority vote for Vice President. Because the Senate theoretically has two Senators per state, it does not have the "vote on a state-by-state basis" rule that the House has in this situation. – Jasper Aug 12 at 19:05
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    @isakbob I will clarify my answer later to more explicitly indicate that it is a frame challenge to your premise that "small district representation" was relevant to the 17th amendment or the US Senate at any point in its history. It is not relevant because "district representation" never has been a function of the Senate. – Joe Aug 12 at 19:41

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