SPRINGFIELD – The most famous senatorial election in American history happened right here in Illinois in 1858 between Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln.
But what is often forgotten is that while Lincoln was widely regarded as the winner of the debates, he was the loser of the election. Back in those days, U.S. senators were chosen by state legislators, not voters as they are today.
So, the tens of thousands of Illinoisans who flocked to listen to political oratory in places like Ottawa, Galesburg, Freeport and Charleston could only express their views to their state lawmakers and hope they would follow through.
And sometimes, state lawmakers were deaf to the voice of the people. That’s why Lincoln lost.
Direct election of U.S. senators didn’t come until 1913 when the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified.
Now, there is a movement afoot to amend the U.S. Constitution and repeal the 17th Amendment.
What once would have been considered a fringe idea is starting to move its way into the mainstream. Former governors Mike Huckabee of Arkansas and Rick Perry of Texas and U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, Mike Lee, R-Utah and Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, are among the conservatives pushing such a notion.
In fact, it was an idea that the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia held close to his heart.
The idea is that state legislators are better equipped to elect senators than ordinary voters, and senators will be better shielded from the influence of interest groups in Washington if they are held accountable by politicians in places like Springfield, Sacramento or Austin.
State’s rights advocates say it would boost the power of state governments.
Having covered the Illinois Legislature for the past 20 years, I can only ask, “Have these people been drinking out of the toilet?”
I’m serious. This plan is insane.
The majority of our state’s lawmakers are not independent voices. They are pawns of a handful of political powerbrokers.
Advocates of repealing the 17th Amendment are engaging in a form of legal idolatry.
The thinking goes like this: our Founding Fathers created the perfect document when they drafted the U.S. Constitution, and changes made to it can only be viewed as blemishes.
Well, those who drafted the Constitution did indeed draft the most magnificent document in human history. But it wasn’t perfect. Nothing produced by human hands can be. For example, it recognized slavery.
Fortunately, our forefathers had the wisdom to enable the Constitution to be amended. In the wake of the Civil War, slavery was abolished through a constitutional amendment. And later, another amendment later gave women the right to vote.
Amending the Constitution is difficult business, as it should be. But it has allowed for flaws to be corrected. One of those flaws was not having U.S. senators directly elected.
And Illinois played an instrumental role in getting this amendment passed – but not in a good way.
In 1909, a corrupt Chicago politician named William Lorimer bribed enough members of the Illinois General Assembly that he was elected to the U.S. Senate. An investigation by the Chicago Tribune and later by the U.S. Senate itself uncovered Lorimer’s corrupt activities, and he was removed from office.
In the wake of this scandal, an outraged public demanded and received an amendment to the U.S. Constitution mandating the direct election of senators. Those who would turn back the clock and take the right to vote away from voters are wrongheaded and elitist in their thinking.
They are putting politicians before people.
We would do well to remember the words of the most famous man cheated under the old system of picking senators: “That government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Note to readers: Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse journalist. He works as a freelance reporter in the Springfield area and produces the podcast Suspect Convictions. He can be reached at ScottReeder1965@gmail.com.