The Republican campaign to gerrymander the U.S. House was famously successful. Could the U.S. Senate be next?
How would that work? By stripping voters of their power to elect senators, and handing it instead to state legislatures—which just happen to be mostly controlled by Republicans.
The latest scheme to undermine democracy is still mostly on the fringes—but it could gain steam Friday. At its annual meeting in Denver, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the secretive and powerful group that brings together corporate lobbyists and conservative lawmakers, will vote on a resolution to support repealing the 17th Amendment, which since 1913 has given voters the power to elect their senators. The measure would instead hand exclusive authority to pick senators to state legislatures.
If the resolution passes, ALEC would put its considerable weight behind lobbying state legislatures to pass their own resolutions in support of a repeal amendment. Utah already did so last year. In the past, ALEC has created model legislation for state lawmakers to introduce on subjects like voter ID, preemption of local minimum wage laws, and more.
The upcoming ALEC vote was flagged this week by the Center for Media and Democracy, a progressive watchdog group.
Of course, the path to successfully amending the Constitution is long. And ALEC considered repeal once before, at its 2013 meeting, which came at a time when the issue seemed to be gaining momentum among conservatives. The lobby group ultimately concluded that the issue was “not germane to ALEC’s mission of free markets, limited government and federalism.”
Still, 17th Amendment repeal has plenty of prominent conservative supporters: Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, Rick Perry, and Antonin Scalia, among others, all have backed the idea in recent years. “If you have the ability to hire and fire me, I’m a lot less likely to break into your house and steal your television,” Cruz (pictured) told the 2013 ALEC conference.
And the upside for the GOP would be so huge that you can see why some conservatives are intrigued by the idea. Republicans currently have full control of state legislatures in 32 states, which send a total of 17 Democratic senators to Washington. By contrast, Democrats fully control just 13 state legislatures, and only one Republican senator—Nevada’s Dean Heller—represents one of those states. So repealing the 17th Amendment would likely give the GOP an extra 16 Senate seats—almost a permanent filibuster-proof majority.
But it’s not just about partisanship. As I wrote in The Great Suppression, there have always been people who have seen the 17th Amendment as something like too much democracy. “For at least since the time of the Greeks it has been well known, as it clearly was to our Founding Fathers, that democracy was not only the worst of all forms of government, but was the last direct step of any nation and any people on the road to an unbridled mobocratic dictatorship,” wrote John Birch Society founder Robert Welch in 1966. Welch viewed the passage of the 17th Amendment as one of the most troubling developments in this direction.
In other words, the movement to repeal the 17th Amendment is not just a brazen scheme to create a permanent Republican Senate. It’s also an ideological campaign aimed at limiting the power of ordinary Americans and returning it to elites. Especially given the host of other efforts to undermine democracy we’re seeing right now, that alone makes it worth watching.