You're Viewing the Archives
Return to IVN's Frontpage

Moving Toward Federalism: The 17th Amendment and the 2016 Election

by David Yee, published

From the Civil War to the New Deal, America's move towards federalism was almost systematically completed as if by some master plan.

In 1913, one of the key constitutional amendments (17th) was ratified, taking the election of senators from the state legislatures and giving it to the population at large -- a move still seen by many as an affront to states' rights.

Only one of the Founding Fathers, James Wilson, was in favor of the popular election of senators, highlighting the fact that the Senate was "as it was supposed to be" in the eyes of the Founders.

The adoption of the Seventeenth Amendment wasn't the first time an amendment was proposed to implement the popular election of senators. The first time was in 1826, when U.S. Rep. Henry Storrs of New York submitted a

handwritten resolution to amend the Constitution on a small scrap of brown paper.

A little over 35 years after the Constitution's ratification, the selection of senators was seen as a corrupt practice (regardless of whether it actually was) filled with cronyism, backroom deals, and bribes.

Famous anti-establishment president Andrew Jackson was in support of the popular election of senators. Yet for all that he was able to do to slow down federalism -- i.e. abolishing the Second Bank of the United States and eliminating the national debt -- he could not gain momentum on this issue.

By 1913, it was the states, not the federal government, that seized upon the issue. A constitutional convention can be called at the request of two-thirds of the state legislatures -- and this method of amending the Constitution has never been used because of its potentially unpredictable results.

By 1910, 31 states had petitioned Congress to reform Senate elections. With the formal number of states requesting a constitutional convention dangerously approaching the two-thirds mark -- raising fears of a "run-away convention" -- Congress finally acted.

Election of Senators and the 2016 Election and Beyond

Among the tea party, the repeal of the Seventeenth Amendment is a popular concept -- returning power to the states and limiting the federal government.

From a historical standpoint, it is essential to remember that the states willingly (and by some standards coercively) gave this power to the federal government.

Part of the reason for this was the cronyism and corruption that many saw, but the greater underlying cause was the de facto gerrymandering that took place in choosing senators caused by the the country/urban divide.

America has always been divided by country/urban values, creating even some of the original rifts between the Federalists (who were largely urban dwellers) and the Anti-Federalists (who were largely from the country).

Because cities have become so large in population, yet compact in size, a de facto gerrymandering exists in most states where the rural legislative districts often have an edge in elections.

Legislative districts must be equipopulous, contiguous, and along natural divides (such as counties, cities, etc) if possible.

One look at an election results map by county and it is evident that the red/blue divide is really more of a country/urban divide.

By 1913, states were realizing that a pattern was developing: when a party held the House by a strong majority, it held the Senate by a stronger majority.

This only makes sense, as the House of Representatives tends to mirror state legislatures in political makeup.

From 1914 on, the make ups of both houses tended to be more even, and with no assurance that the major party of the House would also control the Senate.

As America continues to urbanize, approaching 90% by 2030, the reality is going to set in where the rural vote will win control in most elections dependent on legislative districts (state legislatures, U.S. House), while the urban vote will win the at-large elections (U.S. Senate, governor, and president).

Any attempt to change the current system would disenfranchise the country or urban vote as America continues to urbanize. Regardless of political ilks that come and go over time, we cannot ignore a fundamental divide that has existed since the founding of the nation.

Photo Credit: mj007 /

About the Author