Pennsylvania state capitol in Harrisburg Credit: Jason Pope / Flickr Creative Commons

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It’s been called the “most irrelevant” political office in Harrisburg.

Not this year.

The lieutenant governorship of Pennsylvania is normally an afterthought. This election, the race has drawn a big crop of candidates, some more high-profile than others. It’s also drawn a significant amount of media interest, much of it focused on the running feud between the current LG and governor.

Some dismiss the controversy as an unnecessary byproduct of an unnecessary and outmoded political arrangement, but the fact is that Pa. continues to — for a little while longer, at least — have a lieutenant governor.

Here’s your guide to who’s running for the post in the May 15 primary, what the position entails and why you should care. (Find more info about the election in our general procrastinator’s guide here.)

Who’s running?

There are five Democrats and four Republicans in the LG race.

The Democrats are:

The winner of the Democratic Primary will join Gov. Tom Wolf on the ballot in November.

Then there are four Republicans running against each other in that party’s race:

A fifth Republican candidate, Montgomery County Commissioner Joe Gale, was ordered off the Republican primary ballot by a state judge because the 28-year-old won’t meet the state’s constitutional age threshold of 30 when the next lieutenant governor is sworn in in January 2019.

The winner of the Republican Primary will join the winner of the Republican Party’s gubernatorial primary. And while Republican gubernatorial candidates Paul Mango and Scott Wagner have picked Vaughan and Bartos as their respective running mates, it doesn’t work that way. Voters will choose the LG nominees for each party, although some in Harrisburg want to see that change.

Why are 4 Democrats running when there’s an incumbent?

Great question! The answer is simple — and also not so simple.

Tom Wolf, the Democratic governor seeking reelection this year, has had a fairly high-profile falling out with his current lieutenant governor, Mike Stack, which touched off a behind-the-scenes push within the Democratic Party to find a replacement for Stack. The immediate focus of that push landed on Fetterman.

The Stack-Wolf split — depicted in media reports as an arranged marriage gone south — involves Stack’s alleged mistreatment of staff, Wolf pulling Stack’s state police protection in response, and a general difference in styles between the governor, a York County native and businessman, and Stack, a (fashionable) political scion from Philadelphia.

But Stack remains in the race, and Gov. Wolf has formally endorsed no one.

“This is not the norm,” G. Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Franklin & Marshall College, told the Post-Gazette. “After four years of serving together, you usually see the governor and the lieutenant governor running for re-election as a team.”

Not this time, meaning Democratic primary voters have options — and the ability to shape a ticket — they otherwise might not have.

What does a lieutenant governor actually do?

Depending on who you ask, the lieutenant governorship is either an important component of the executive branch or a meaningless and ineffectual drain on resources. (Don’t even get them started on the LG’s mansion.)

But while it may not be as directly impactful as other positions, a lieutenant governor does serve a number of functions. The LG doubles as president of the state Senate, which critics argue is almost entirely a ceremonial role. The LG is also a tie-breaker on most Senate votes, according to Pennsylvania’s Constitution.

The LG is also chairperson for the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons — Meek Mill fans/supporters take note.

And a governor will often appoint an LG to oversee agencies like the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, a governmental entity that “helps communities and citizens mitigate against, prepare for, respond to, and recover from emergencies including natural disasters, acts of terrorism, or other human-made disasters.”

Oh yeah, and the LG is the backup in case something happens to the governor that would prevent him or her from serving, like death or illness.

But I don’t care about pardons or lines of succession, and I live in an underground bunker where weather isn’t an issue. Why should I vote for lieutenant governor, really?

Because you may not be able to in the future.

Legislation has been introduced that would change how the LG is chosen in Pennsylvania. Instead of being selected by voters in a primary, as it’s been done for 50 years, LG candidates — otherwise known as running mates to governors — would be chosen by the gubernatorial candidates themselves. The measure won Senate approval in March.

Legislation was also introduced to abolish the office entirely and to put the state attorney general in charge of the board of pardons, for example. (Again, Meek Mill/clemency fans take note.) That bill would also make the president pro tempore of the state Senate the next in line if something were to happen to the governor, the York Daily Dispatch reported.

And just take a moment to think about that.

If a transfer like that were to happen today, it would mean a Democratic governor, Tom Wolf, being replaced by the current president pro tempore of the state Senate, Joe Scarnati, a Republican about as ideologically distinct from Wolf as possible. The same could also hold true if the parties were swapped. It’s a strange dynamic and one that’s almost certain to be wildly unpopular with both voters and the parties themselves.

But all that aside, is the current setup in Pennsylvania the most efficient? Definitely not.

In other states, the lieutenant governor’s position is rolled into another. As an example, Hawaii is one of four states where the lieutenant governor also acts as the secretary of state, according to Ballotpedia.

There’s also the issue of cost. Pennsylvania’s is the highest paid lieutenant governor in the country — while some lieutenant governors in other states such as Texas earn as little as $9,600 annually, Stack receives $160,000 and many privileges, PennLive reports.

And while we can debate the rationale behind the position, the costs, the impact and any number of alternative approaches, we cannot debate the importance of voting.

So make sure to cast your ballot for lieutenant governor on May 15. Do it while you still can.