Seventeenth Amendment

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Definition of Seventeenth Amendment

an amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1913, providing for the election of two U.S. senators from each state by popular vote and for a term of six years.
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Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2022


What is the Seventeenth Amendment?

The Seventeenth Amendment is an amendment to the US Constitution that states that senators will be elected to six-year terms by popular vote.

The Constitution of the United States is the document that serves as the  fundamental law of the country. An amendment is a change to something. An amendment to the Constitution is any text added to the original document since its ratification in 1788. The Constitution has been amended 27 times in American history.

Before the Seventeenth Amendment, members of the US Senate were elected by state legislatures, not the citizens of the state. The Seventeenth Amendment changed this rule to state that the people of the state the senator will represent will elect their senator.

Should a senator’s seat become vacant before the end of the senator’s term, as when a senator dies in office, the Seventeenth Amendment gives the state’s governor authority to appoint a temporary replacement until the next general election, with the authorization of the state legislature.

Why is Seventeenth Amendment important?

During the Constitutional Convention, the Federalists argued that state legislatures, not the people, should choose senators. They believed this would give state governments more power against the federal government and force the federal government to be accountable both to the citizens (the House of Representatives) and the state governments (the Senate).

The House of Representatives opposed this choosing of senators as early as the 1820s. The situation really became a problem following the American Civil War, when some state legislatures left their Senate seats empty for long periods. Many states had passed their own election legislation that allowed their citizens to directly elect senators.

In 1911, Senator Joseph Bristow presented the resolution that would become the Seventeenth Amendment to Congress. It was passed by Congress on May 13, 1912, and was ratified on April 8, 1913. Beginning in 1914, all senators were chosen directly by the people in general elections and have been ever since.

Did you know … ?

William Randolph Hearst tasked writer David Graham Phillips with stimulating support for direct election of senators. Phillips did this with his series, “Treason of the Senate,” written in The Cosmopolitan, a magazine owned by Hearst. That name might sound familiar, as the magazine still exists today as Cosmopolitan, a very popular entertainment and lifestyle magazine.

What are real-life examples of Seventeenth Amendment?

This photo shows Senator Kamala Harris of California questioning Attorney General William Barr in 2019. The Seventeenth Amendment established both the rules of electing senators like Harris and the process for replacing them when their seats become vacant, as Harris’s did when she became vice president in 2021.

Today, Americans enjoy having the power to directly elect senators. More commonly, the Seventeenth Amendment is mentioned when a senator needs to be temporarily replaced.

Quiz yourself!

True or False?

The Seventeenth Amendment changed the process by which all members of Congress are elected.

How to use Seventeenth Amendment in a sentence