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Even if you can’t remember who became president when John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, you probably know he was Kennedy’s vice president (it was Lyndon B. Johnson). You might even know that the next stop on the presidential succession train is the Speaker of the House.
The gubernatorial line of succession, on the other hand, isn’t exactly common knowledge, partly because it differs by state. But for the most part, the person prepared to step up if the governor must step down is the aptly titled lieutenant governor. According to Ballotpedia, 45 states have one; and in all 45 of those state constitutions, the lieutenant governor is first in the line of succession.
It’s not the position’s only parallel to the vice presidency. In many states, as HowStuffWorks explains, the lieutenant governor is responsible for presiding over the state senate. Other than that, their duties depend a lot on what the sitting governor delegates to them and how much initiative they take on their own. If you think that sounds like a recipe for a vague and insubstantial gig comprising mostly ceremonial appearances, you’re not alone. In 2011, SFGATE reported that politicians like to sum up the job as follows: “Get up, read the paper, see if the governor is dead, if not, go back to sleep.”
The five states with no lieutenant governor at all seem to tacitly agree that there’s no explicit need for one. In three of them—Arizona, Oregon, and Wyoming—the secretary of state takes over if the governor leaves office before their term is up. The other two, Maine and New Hampshire, opt for the president of the senate instead.
Things get a little less homogeneous when you move on to the next spot in line. Fourteen state constitutions mandate that the president of the senate or president pro tempore of the senate should take over; seven states name the secretary of state; and three choose the attorney general. Oregon jumps straight to the state treasurer. Another seven states—Alaska, California, Kentucky, Nevada, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Wyoming—would apparently prefer to just cross that bridge if ever they come to it: Their constitutions don’t even bother naming a second-in-line successor.
In short, the gubernatorial line of succession is a testament to the U.S.’s ongoing commitment to letting states figure things out for themselves, for better or worse.
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