R.I. House finally Ratifies 17th U.S. Constitutional Amendment: direct election of U.S. senators

Jun 5, 2014

At the behest of House Judiciary Committee Chairman Cale Keable, D-Burrillville, the Rhode Island House has finally voted to ratify the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution,  which reqired direct election of U.S. Senators.

Before the amendment took effect in 1913, senators were elected by state legislators. That system was widely criticized for breeding corruption as senate aspirants bribed lawmakers to secure the votes needed to win senate seats.

The ceremonial resolution approved by the House doesn’t change anything, Keable acknowledged,  but he said it does send a message ``that Rhode Island values democracy.’’

Rhode Island never ratified the 17th Amendment, but the state’s inaction was moot because the necessary three fourths of states approved it. Rhode Island in that era was controlled by Protestant Republicans but immigration from Roman Catholic countries of Europe brought many to the state who became Democrats.

A 1905 state census showed that Rhode Island was the first state to have a Roman Catholic majority. Republicans did not want citizens to vote because they were much more likely to elect Democrats to the Senate than was the GOP-controlled General Assembly. Since direction election of senators and particularly since the Great Depression if the 1930s, Rhode Island voters have sent more Democrats to the senate than Republicans. Since World War II, the only two Republicans elected to the senate from Rhode Island were John Chafee and his son, Lincoln Chafee, the state's current governor.

Rhode Island's current two senators, Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse, are both Democrats.

Most historians cite the Progressive Era and the government changes it ushered in with leading the drive for direct election of senators. In recent some in the Tea Party and fringe conservatives in the Republican Party nationally, but not in Rhode Island, have lobbied for repeal of the 17th Amendment.

Some conservatives believe that having voters elect senators has diluted states rights. Among those upset with the 17 Amendment are Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah and such tea party favorites as Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Todd Akin, the unsuccessful Missouri 2012 Republican senate candidate.

``The right to choose one’s own elected representatives is held very dear by Americans,’’ said Keable in a statement. ``This a chance to rectify our  inaction on this matter a century ago.’’