The Seventeenth Amendment and Federalism in an Age of National Political Parties

David Schleicher

Volume 65, Issue 4, 1043-99

Despite it being the constitutional amendment that most directly altered the structure of
the federal government, little is known about how and why the Seventeenth Amendment
was enacted. Existing scholarship on why the Constitution was amended to require direct
elections for U.S. Senators, rather than having them appointed by state legislatures, has
troubled accounting for two major puzzles. Why were state legislatures eager to give away
the power to choose Senators? And why was there virtually no discussion of federalism
during debates over removing a key constitutional protection for states governments?

This Article offers a theory that can provide an answer to both of these questions. Support
for direct elections was, at least in part, a result of the rise of ideologically coherent,
national political parties. The rise of truly national parties meant that state legislative
elections increasingly turned on national issues, as voters used these elections as means to
select Senators. State politicians and interest groups supported direct elections as a way of
separating national and state politics. Advocates of repealing the Seventeenth Amendment
claim the mantle of federalism, but repeal would reduce the benefits of federalism,
making state legislatures into something akin to electoral colleges for U.S. Senators.

While important in its own right, the history of the Seventeenth Amendment can also
teach us a great deal about how federalism functions in eras of strong national political
parties. First, national political parties have not generally served as “political safeguards
of federalism,” but instead have made state politics turn on national issues. Second,
despite the Seventeenth Amendment, state elections still largely turn on national politics.
Although state issues are sometimes important, the most important factor in state
legislative elections is the popularity of the President. To achieve the benefits for state
democracy sought by supporters of the Seventeenth Amendment, election law reform
would be more effective than structural constitutional changes.

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