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The Voter’s Speakeasy featuring unbiased reporting and insight into life at Project Vote Smart from our staff, interns, and volunteers.

Interim Appointments and the Seventeenth Amendment

2009 September 25

The passage of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913 capped a process of reform that had begun nearly a hundred years before, with direct election of Senators--an idea first proposed all the way back in 1826, and which gathered momentum across a century of civil unrest and Congressional scandal--coming into full effect across the United States.  Four years short of the Amendment's hundredth birthday, the principle of direct election of Senators has become firmly rooted in most Americans' conception of just government.  However, to this day, seats in the Senate continue to be distributed through appointments-- made not by their states' legislatures, but by their governors. Appointment of Senators by state governors is provided for in the text of the Seventeenth Amendment.  After mandating that Senators, in all regular circumstances, should be "elected by the people," its second paragraph states: "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." Ultimate authority to decide how vacancies should be filled, therefore, remains with the State Legislatures.   Should they choose, they can deny the executive any ability to make interim appointments, leaving the governor's sole Constitutional responsibility as issuing the order for a special election to be held.   In practice, though, only three ...

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