May 17, 2013
U.S. Senate elections in Nevada look quite a bit different from the way it used to be. Senator Richard Bryan explains:
This year marks a centennial that some people will celebrate … and will make others commiserate. On February 6, 1913, Nevada became the fifteenth state to ratify the seventeenth amendment to the United States Constitution. Other states quickly followed, and the amendment was ratified two months later.
The amendment changed how we elect our United States senators. Until then, state legislatures had elected them. That was part of Article I of the U.S. Constitution. Under the new amendment, the people would directly elect their senators. The measure also provided for elections and gubernatorial appointments to fill vacancies.
This issue has become controversial in recent years. Members of the Tea Party have advocated repealing the amendment. Many Nevadans long have shared the Tea Party’s displeasure with the federal government. But our state had been advocating this measure for several years before it passed. It didn’t hurt that the Populist Party supported direct election of senators. That provision became part of the party’s Omaha platform of 1892. Nevadans had supported the Populist Party through an alliance with the group over monetary policy … Populists had supported the movement to remonetize silver, which would benefit Nevadans.
But Nevadans didn’t need the Populists for this one. Nevada had a history of U.S. Senate elections that could turn anyone into an advocate of direct elections. How bad was it?
Nevada became a state in 1864. The next spring, the legislature met and chose our first two senators. William Morris Stewart won the first seat. He represented most of the big mining companies on the Comstock Lode. The story is that his connections gave him veto power over who his colleague would be. One of the candidates told Stewart what he thought of that. A different candidate won … James Nye, who had been territorial governor.
In 1873, Nye wanted to win reelection, but he had no hope. Two millionaires from the Comstock wanted his seat. In the end, John P. Jones defeated William Sharon. During the legislative session, both men’s representatives bribed lawmakers. Some legislators sold their vote more than once. After Jones won, Sharon bought Virginia City’s newspaper, the Territorial Enterprise. It started advocating his election to the Senate. Stewart decided not to run in 1875. The legislature chose Sharon, who then attended only one session.
In 1881, Sharon wanted to be reelected anyway. Another Comstock millionaire, James Fair, bought the seat. He served only one term before managing to offend numerous legislators as well as his old business partner, John Mackay. Mackay helped bankroll Fair’s opponent … William Stewart, who returned to the Senate.
Stewart would be reelected twice more. Both times, he ran with the support of the Central Pacific Railroad. The railroad managed and underwrote his campaigns, and did even more than that. Back in 1869, one railroad executive, Collis Huntington, wrote to another that Stewart “has always stood by us. I know he must live, and we must fix it so that he can make one or two hundred thousand dollars.” Not long afterward, the railroad’s owners gave him fifty thousand acres of land.
You might be thinking, that’s corrupt, and that could happen with or without directly electing United States senators. Next time, we’ll explain a little further.
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