What Is the 17th Amendment in Simple Terms?

By Chelsea Levinson - Updated March 02, 2018
Person voting at polling station

The 17th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution allows people in each state to elect two U.S. senators by popular vote. Previously, senators were selected by state legislatures, as required by Article 1, section 3 of the Constitution. When state legislatures began fighting over their Senate selections and leaving seats vacant for long periods, Congress decided to propose an amendment to the Constitution to give citizens the right to choose their senators directly. The states ratified the 17th Amendment, and it went into effect on April 8, 1913.

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The 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution allows the people in each state to elect their two U.S. Senators by popular vote. Previously, Senators were selected by state legislatures. The 17th Amendment also lays out rules for filling Senate vacancies.

What the 17th Amendment Means

Essentially, the 17th Amendment gives voters the power to directly elect their senators. It also states that the U.S. Senate includes two senators from each state, and that each senator has one vote in the Senate. Senators are elected for six-year terms. The 17th Amendment also covers what happens if there's a Senate vacancy. If a Senator can’t finish a term for any reason, the state’s governor can schedule a special election. State law can also give the governor the power to appoint a temporary Senator to fill the vacancy until an election can be held to choose a permanent Senator.

Senate Vacancies and State Laws

State laws vary as to how Senate vacancies are filled. Some states, like Alabama and Oregon, use a special election to fill a vacancy. These states have laws dictating when a special election should be held, usually within a few months of the vacancy. Most states, however, fill Senate vacancies at their regularly scheduled elections. In these states, governors choose temporary appointees to fill vacancies. A few of these states, such as Arizona and North Carolina, have laws stating that temporary appointees must be of the same political party as the leaving Senator.

History of the 17th Amendment

Originally, when the Constitution was ratified in 1788, each state government had its own way of choosing its two Senators. This eventually began to cause problems in the mid-1850s, as political tensions rose in the lead-up to the Civil War. Throughout the 19th century, state governments increasingly struggled to elect Senators, with many Senate seats remaining vacant due to infighting, political gridlock and in some cases, corruption. Seats could remain vacant for months or even years while state legislatures squabbled.

The movement to elect the Senate by popular vote grew throughout the 1800s and the early 1900s. Finally, on May 13th, 1912, the 17th Amendment was ratified, giving the Senate vote to the people. Since 1913, Americans have enjoyed their 17th Amendment right to elect their Senators by popular vote.

About the Author

Chelsea Levinson is a J.D., researcher, writer and award-winning video producer. She has created content for Vox, AOL, H&R Block, Comcast, Bank of America, State Farm, Delta Air Lines, MAKERS, PBS, Levo and more.

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