Can Illinois Again Lead by (Bad) Example?

Illinois politicians’ sordid reputation for selling seats in the U.S. Senate to the highest bidder is, sadly, at least a century old. As embarrassing as that history may be to residents of the Land of Lincoln, it is a past that suggests ways to deal with the current mess.
One hundred years ago the corrupt marketing of an Illinois Senate seat brought about both state and federal electoral reforms, including passage of the U.S. Constitution’s Seventeenth Amendment, which mandated popular election of senators. Can Illinois inspire the country again?
Following the election of 1908, the Illinois State Assembly met to select a new U.S. senator. The framers of the federal Constitution had decided that politically knowledgeable and sophisticated state leaders rather than the general public should select members of the upper house of Congress.
As intended, the system brought extraordinary men, including John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and Charles Sumner, to the Senate. Occasionally quests for Senate seats produced elevated public discussion, such as the statewide 1858 debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas over slavery and other matters, before the legislative majority made its selection.
Few Senate contests reached the standard Lincoln and Douglas set, however. Many seats went to men of modest talent and less vision, some of whom allegedly paid large bribes for the honor. By the 19th century’s end, the U.S. Senate had become widely known, as it still is today, as a “millionaires club.” Numerous wealthy members had gained their seats through hefty financial contributions to their state parties and legislators.
Frequently legislatures deadlocked over the choice of a senator, adding to the appearance of a defective system. In forty-five contests in twenty states between 1891 and 1905, legislatures delayed filling a seat because they were unable to agree upon a candidate. Fourteen seats remained empty for a full congressional term. In the worst case, Delaware went for three terms with only one senator and from 1901 to 1908 without any at all.
An Illinois scandal, not much different from today’s, brought to a head the demand for reform that had been growing since the 1870s. For five months in 1909, the State Assembly remained deadlocked over the choice of a new senator. Eventually it chose a Chicago businessman, William Lorimer. A six-term congressman, he, like Roland Burris, did not lack credentials. Despite charges of a corrupt selection process, Lorimer took his Senate seat.
A year later, however, an investigation confirmed the rumors, revealing that a $100,000 corporate “slushfund” had been used on Lorimer’s behalf. Four state legislators were identified as having accepted large payments to vote for him. A U.S. Senate inquiry led to a 1912 decision to expel Lorimer from office.
As in the current situation, the standing rules for choosing a senator had been followed, but the means of selection proved so tainted that the Senate earned applause for its subsequent action to cleanse itself. In Gov. Blagojevich’s appointment, the Senate is now facing similar image tarnishing, or enhancing, choices. The Lorimer example suggests that, if the Senate seats Roland Burris, it would remain free to remove him if his patron Blagojevich were found unfit.
Having embarrassed the Senate, the Lorimer scandal increased pressure to reform the process for selecting Senate members. Since 1893, the U.S. House of Representatives had repeatedly favored a constitutional amendment providing for popular election of senators. Numerous states also petitioned for such a change. The Senate itself, however, had consistently refused to comply.
Frustrated by Senate inaction and persistent evidence of corruption, several states, led by Oregon, developed their own systems of requiring legislators to accept the results of advisory popular elections when filling Senate seats. In the midst of the Lorimer inquiry, Joseph Bristow of Kansas, his state’s first popularly chosen senator, lobbied his colleagues to embrace reform.
With the negative publicity generated by the Illinois situation together with rising concern that enough states might petition to force a constitutional convention — and who knew what that might produce!– the Senate finally capitulated in May 1911. In less than two years the Seventeenth Amendment was approved by Congress and ratified.
By its bad example, Illinois inspired an important constitutional reform. It may be too much to hope for the same result from the current Blagojevich “pay-to-play” embarrassment. However, closing the loophole that empowers governors to fill midterm Senate vacancies without a popular vote would be a welcome start.
A more substantial consequence of revisiting this bit of American history could arise from its reminder that states, now as then, possess considerable power to secure significant electoral change. States today could follow Oregon’s century-old example by taking action to democratize distribution of their electoral votes. By assuring that state electoral votes more closely reflect popular preference, as Maine and Nebraska have already done, legislatures across the nation could pay Illinois’s current governor the backhanded compliment they paid a century ago to William Lorimer.

David E. Kyvig, Distinguished Research Professor at Northern Illinois University, is author of "The Age of Impeachment: American Constitutional Culture since 1960" (2008).

January, 2009