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Analysis: Maryland Ratifies 17th Amendment Close To Signing Centennial

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Jamie Raskin is a Maryland state senator for District 20, and is a law professor at American University.

Maryland's General Assembly took a historic step in the legislative session that ended this week. It voted to ratify the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution nearly a century after it was adopted. The 17th amendment mandates that U.S. Senators be elected by a popular vote rather by state legislatures. It was passed by Congress in 1912, and three-quarters of states ratified it by spring of 1913 -- but Maryland was not among them.

This year, Maryland State Senator Jamie Raskin of Montgomery County co-sponsored the bill to add the state to the list. Rebecca Blatt spoke with him about why he made the amendment a priority.

How did you come to push for the state to pass the 17th amendment?

"I actually happened upon it quite by accident. I saw a couple of years ago that Delaware had ratified the 17th amendment, so I decided to check and see if we had ratified it. It turned out that the 17th amendment was the only Constitutional amendment that we had never ratified. So I thought this was long overdue -- just in time for the 100th anniversary of the addition of the 17th amendment to the Constitution."

What about content of that amendment was important to you?

"The 17th amendment was a dramatic triumph for progressive forces in the country. It was pushed by the progressives, the populists, William Jennings Brian, because the U.S. Senate had become captive to a lot of corrupt, moneyed interests. So the progressive and populist movements were arguing that the people should have the right to choose U.S. Senators."

"If you think about it, the U.S. Constitution started off with a lot of indirect democratic filters, or to put it differently, undemocratic features. The state legislatures chose the U.S. Senators, there was no Constitutional right to vote, the Electoral College was a mediating institution between the people and the presidency. And so, over time, we have tried to make the Constitution a more democratic document and the 17th amendment was part of that historical process."

Some conservatives argue that this is taking power away from the states, and people in state governments would know best who represents the interests of the state. How do you respond to that way of thinking?

"It is of course the people of the states who choose the U.S. Senators, but it's all of the people of the states, and not just the people in the state legislatures. And what the muckraking journalists of the time exposed was a whole bunch of scandals where corporate money was spread around to state legislators, and not just their campaigns, but their pockets in order to choose what came to be called "corporation U.S. Senators." That is, U.S. Senators who were beholden to certain companies who got them elected or selected to office in these bribe-soaked state legislatures."

So why hadn't Maryland ratified it to begin with?

"Fortunately, that was just an accident. Maryland wasn't in session during the 1913 period when the Constitutional amendment was sent out. When we came back into session in 1914, it was already fait accompli and was sort of overlooked -- it had already been done. But Maryland has actually already ratified a number of Constitutional amendments long after the fact."

What kind of practical effect will this have now that it has been passed?

"It puts us on record as being friends of the 17th amendment. Although we didn't ratify it at the time, we did have the first contested popular election for U.S. Senator, which was resulted in the election of Senator Blair Lee."

Raskin is a professor of law and the director of the law and government program at American University.  WAMU is licensed to American University.

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