Before 1913, state legislatures elected members to the U.S. Senate. That changed with the adoption of the 17th Amendment, which calls for senators to be elected in each state by popular vote. Now, some state lawmakers in Nashville want to return to something much like that old system.
State Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, is sponsoring a bill that would allow members of the Tennessee General Assembly to select partisan nominees for Senate in the general election. Niceley said passage of his bill wouldn’t go into effect until after next year’s Senate race, which sees incumbent Lamar Alexander seeking another six-year term in Washington.
Last week, Niceley put off a vote on the bill in the state Senate until the end of the legislative session. That action, taken on April 1, represented the 100th anniversary of the vote in Tennessee to ratify the 17th Amendment.
Supporters of the proposed change say allowing the General Assembly to select party nominees would do away with the influence money often plays in such statewide races. Niceley also believes ending partisan primaries for the Senate will allow state government to regain the influence framers of the Constitution had originally intended.
Critics, however, say ending primaries will return to the process to the corrupt, party boss system of the past. Bruce Oppenheimer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University, told The Associated Press the bill would be seen as “a move of taking political power away from the people and moving it to an elite group of elected officials.”
He also said it “would smack of being elite, boss-controlled and anti-democratic and potentially corrupting.”
State Democrats want to be excluded from the measure. Roy Herron, chairman of the Tennessee Democratic Party, said Republicans “want to take the people out of the elections and let a small number of Republican politicians grab their power.”
The idea is also getting a mixed reactions on Capitol Hill, even among leaders of the Republican supermajority.
“This is a way we can actually choose the candidate and make them more responsible,” said Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville. “The federal government is completely broken, and there’s got to be something to get their attention. And this could be it.”
House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, told the AP he thinks the idea is “intriguing,” but is not certain the General Assembly has time to work out all the details before the end of this year’s legislative session.
“It would keep people from having to be a multimillionaire to run in the primaries,” McCormick said. “This would open it up to more people.”
At the same time, McCormick said many Tennesseans may prefer to have an opportunity to vote on Senate nominees rather than “have the legislature decide.”
Other states are looking at bills that would specifically repeal the 17th Amendment. Republicans lawmakers in Georgia say it’s time to end direct elections of all U.S. senators. According to a story that appeared in the Douglas County Sentinel earlier this year, Georgia state Rep. Kevin Cooke said his bill calling on Congress to abolish the 17th Amendment was not solely his idea.
“This was what James Madison was writing,” Cooke said. “This would be a restoration of the Constitution.”
Similar measures have been introduced in legislatures in New Hampshire and Arizona.
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