Class Assignments in the U.S. Senate

No one gave the Senators homework when they were first elected. Nor were they suddenly members of a special class in U.S. society. But a little-known clause in the U.S. Constitution requires that for election purposes, the Senate assign “classes” to group seats for re-election so that roughly one-third of the Senators are up for grabs every two years.

Article II, Section 3, paragraph 2 reads: Immediately after they shall be assembled in consequence of the first election, they shall be divided as equally as may be into three classes. The seats of the Senators of the first class shall be vacated at the expiration of the second year, of the second class of the fourth year and of the third class at the expiration of the sixth year so that one-third may be chosen every second year.

George Washington was elected as our first president, and his vice president, John Adams, was presiding over the Senate as per Article II, Section 3, Paragraph 4. The question of determining which senators would be in each election “class” was being debated. There were only 20 Senators in the room since Rhode Island and North Carolina had yet to ratify the Constitution and could not send Senators. New York hadn’t gotten around to electing its Senators so none were members.

The second problem the Senators faced was creating an enduring system in which Senators from newly admitted states would be assigned a “class.”

On May 14th, 1789, a small committee was formed to solve this problem. Their solution was as ingenious as it was simple. The first step was to arbitrarily divide the 10 states into three groups and each group was assigned a number by drawing one of three small sheets of paper from a box. One sheet had the number 1, another 2 and the third 3.

The second step occurred on the following day, May 15th, 1789 when Tristan Dalton, a recently elected Senator from Massachusetts, walked to the front of the room where the same box with the same three sheets of paper was used the day before rested in front of John Adams.

If Dalton drew the piece of paper with the number 1, he, and his fellow senators in the “class” with Massachusetts would stand for re-election in two years. If he drew the one with 2, then his “class” of states would hold elections for its Senators in four years. A 3 meant the Senators in his “class” for this first term would serve the entire first term.

Dalton drew one of the small slips and read in a loud voice, “Number One.” what was on it so it could be recorded in what would become known as the Congressional Record. A representative from each “class” followed.

The precedent was established and has been tweaked a bit by the Senate over the past 240+ years to accommodate the addition of new states. Now, when each state is admitted, each Senator from the state after he or she is sworn in, reaches into the same box used in 1789 and draws a number. To help ensure the split into thirds continues, the senators will remove the number corresponding to the “class” with  “too many” senators.

For the record, the last time this was done was when Hawaii was admitted as a state in August 1959, there were only two numbers in the box. Senator, Oren Long drew the number 3 and would stay in the Senate for a full term. Hiram Fong drew the number 1 placing his seat in Class 1 meaning he would stand for re-election in 2 years. Hawaii’s other. Today, “Classes” 1 and 2 have 33 seats and “Class 3,” 34, thus proving the system created in 1789 works as desired.

Image is of Hiram Fong, the last Senator who drew an election class number from the little wooden box first used in 1789.

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