State legislators would be wise to let voters remain in charge of who they send to Washington

9:38 am | April 1, 2013

The Tennessee Legislature just cannot get enough power. Some legislators in Nashville are pressing for the right to choose their party’s nominee for the U.S. Senate — and take it away from citizens.

Voters wouldn’t be part of the process until the general election, and that’s ridiculous. It seems to us that Tennessee’s voters, who are capable of electing state legislators, are competent enough to choose their candidates for U.S. Senate, too.

The reasoning some legislators are giving for the proposed change is that party caucuses will make sure candidates are picked who will see to the state’s needs first.

Another argument is that senate candidates have to raise so much money to run for office that they become beholden to special interests. Of course, state legislators are never beholden to special interests, right?

The bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Frank Nicely of Strawberry Plains, points back to a time before 1913, when senators were appointed by state legislatures. However, that all changed in 1913 when the 17th amendment to the U.S. Constitution was adopted, providing for direct popular election of United States senators.

So, it appears Sen. Nicely and many of his Republican colleagues want to find away around the Constitution, so they can have their hand at choosing your U.S. Senator. Tennessee voters sent Bob Corker, the former Chattanooga mayor, and Lamar Alexander, the former governor, to the U.S. Senate. If voters are unhappy with either Corker or Alexander, it seems as if that should be up to them — at the ballot box.

Why should Tennessee legislators get to choose who they want in the U.S. Senate rather than who citizens want?
If passed, the new system would not take effect until after the 2014 general election, meaning Sen. Alexander would face re-election under the current system of voters picking nominees in contested primary elections. But if the bill (SB471) passes, candidates from both parties for U.S. Senate would be chosen by the new process — taking the decision from voters until the general election.

You will still get to vote — just not between candidates in primaries.

Most states, including Tennessee, have contested primaries for the Republican and Democratic nominations, but some have party caucuses instead. Under Nicely’s plan, legislators would basically act as a caucus picking their party’s nominee.

Allowing Americans to choose their own senators seems so obvious that it is hard to remember that the nation’s founders didn’t really trust voters with the job.

Nicely’s idea is unthinkable, especially when you realize how dysfunctional the Tennessee legislature can be at times.

Should the bill pass, senators would be accountable only to state legislators — not the voters. Politicians beholden to politicians. Isn’t that why Washington, D.C., doesn’t work anymore?

Letting the voters choose their nominee has worked for 100 years, why change now? The real reason is that legislators want to decide who goes to Washington, D.C. Do we want to go back to the days when intimidation and bribery marked some of the states’ selection of senators?

Not enough Americans vote. But, fortunately, almost all like the idea that they can, a thoroughly modern sentiment that will confine this elitist notion to the fringes. The best remedy is the one that Nicely and most Tennessee Republican legislators seem to spurn: a vote at the ballot box.

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