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Politically Thinking: Lt. Gov. position no longer useful

Vermont is among a minority of states where the governor and lieutenant governor are elected separately, and among an even smaller minority of states where the current governor and lieutenant governor are of different political parties. This situation is likely to continue after the November election, since Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin and Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Scott are both favored to be re-elected.
Some Vermonters may believe that the lieutenant governor is an “assistant governor,” a member of the governor’s administration. Governors do have the discretion to include, or not to include, the lieutenant governor in their cabinets. However, the Vermont constitution does not give the lieutenant governor any formal administrative role. The lieutenant governor has only two constitutional duties: to preside over the senate, with the power to vote to break ties; and to act as governor when the governor is absent from the state, has resigned, or has passed away.
The lieutenant governor’s role in Vermont government is exemplified by having an office in the State House with the legislators, rather than in the Pavilion Building with the governor’s senior staff. Many lieutenant governors have treated the position as a part-time job, especially when the Legislature is not in session. Howard Dean practiced medicine as lieutenant governor (in fact, he was seeing a patient when he learned that Gov. Snelling had died suddenly), and Brian Dubie was a pilot for American Airlines.
Seven states have no lieutenant governor. In these states, should the governor resign or die, the vacancy would be filled by the presiding officer of the state senate, or by the secretary of state. Vermont is the only northern New England state with a lieutenant governor. In both Maine and New Hampshire, the president of the senate would take over if the governorship were vacant.
In 25 states, the lieutenant governor is elected on a ticket with the governor. In 17 of these states, the gubernatorial candidate chooses his or her running mate. In eight states, there are separate primaries for governor and lieutenant governor, with the primary winners in each party joining up to form a ticket for the general election. The governor and lieutenant governor are elected separately in 18 states, including Vermont. In five of those 18 states, the governor and lieutenant governor are currently from different parties.
There were 17 elections in Vermont between 1962 and 1994. Vermonters elected governors and lieutenant governors of different parties in eight of those 17 elections. Starting with the 1996 election, the governors and lieutenant governors were all from the same party, until Shumlin and Scott were elected in 2010.
Several of Vermont’s recent lieutenant governors, including Republicans Peter Smith and Brian Dubie, and Democrats Madeleine Kunin and Doug Racine, ran for governor. None of these candidates won a gubernatorial election while they were serving as lieutenant governor. Kunin was elected governor two years after her term as lieutenant governor ended. The last person to be elected governor of Vermont while serving as lieutenant governor was Robert Stafford, in 1958.
The lieutenant governorship as a part-time job with few duties outside the legislative session may no longer be appropriate for Vermont’s needs. A better arrangement would be to elect the governor and lieutenant governor as a ticket. This would ensure that, should there be a vacancy in the governorship, the vacancy would be filled by someone from the same party as the governor. This structure would also allow the lieutenant governor to be a full member of the administration, with policy and political responsibilities assigned by the governor.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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