Constitution Daily

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How congressional elections have changed since 1789

October 31, 2018 by Scott Bomboy


On Tuesday, November 6, 2018, voters across America will choose a new Congress to start serving in January 2019. Today’s process would be unrecognizable to someone who took part in the first congressional elections in 1789.

The two most noticeable changes in the election process for the House and Senate in the past 229 years have been the composition of the voting population for House and Senate elections, and the process of electing Senators (which was significantly changed by the Constitution’s 17th Amendment.)

In 1789, the First Congress began on March 4, but the election process had started in September 1788, when the Confederation Congress passed an ordinance that allowed state legislatures to begin the process of electing House Representatives and Senators under the new Constitution. Pennsylvania lawmakers picked William Maclay and Robert Morris as the first two new members of the Senate in late September. Under the Constitution’s original rules, state legislatures elected Senators and not voters.

That same year, Patrick Henry used his political influence to block James Madison’s election to the United States Senate by Virginia lawmakers. Instead, Madison campaigned personally in Virginia against his opponent for the House of Representatives, James Monroe, for the votes of Virginia’s freeholders (or tax-paying landowners). In general, voting was restricted to, in most cases, adult white men who owned property or paid taxes.

The new Constitution’s Article 1, Section 2 spelled out that voters in House races also had to be eligible to vote as “Electors of the most numerous Branch of the State Legislature.” By one estimate, 80 percent of free white males might have been eligible to vote in the 1788 and 1789 congressional elections. The University of Florida’s United States Election Project estimates voter-eligible turnout was about 21 percent for the 1788-1789 congressional elections.

By that time, most states had also switched to using paper ballots, but some states required voters to announce their election choices by publicly declaring their votes. But voting was almost always a privilege reserved for white adult men. And the open campaigning of political parties would occur in the decade after the first congressional election.

The later ratification of the 14th Amendment in 1868 and the 15th Amendment in 1870 extended the voting franchise to adult black men. The ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920 extended voting rights to adult women nationally, and legislation in 1924 guaranteed that all Native Americans of voting age could vote.

The election of Senators by state lawmakers, and not directly by voters, had been controversial before the 17th Amendment ended the practice in 1913. In some cases, deadlocked state legislatures couldn’t agree on Senate candidates, leaving states without representation in Washington. In other cases, candidates were able to secure Senate appointments using financial resources.

Voters and lawmakers in Oregon started the movement to the direct election of Senators by implementing a referendum system in its primary elections that pledged lawmakers to Senate candidates approved by voters. By 1912, the Oregon system was in use in 28 states, just four states short of the supermajority needed to pass a constitutional amendment. Congress then endorsed the effort to change the Constitution to make direct Senate elections mandatory for all states.

Today, voters in the 2018 congressional elections will include people over the age of 18 years of age (thanks to the 26th Amendment) with no restrictions on race and gender (or property ownership). In some states, people who are convicted felons or serving jail sentences can’t vote. And of course, people need to register to vote.

Lyle Denniston has been writing about the Supreme Court since 1958.  His work has appeared here since mid-2011.  


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