As second in the order of succession to Wisconsin's governorship, the secretary of state becomes governor if the governor dies, resigns or is removed from office while the lieutenant governorship is vacant; prior to a 1979 amendment to the Wisconsin Constitution, however, the secretary simply became acting governor if any of these events were to occur. No secretary of state has ever ascended to the governorship or acting-governorship under such circumstances. Both before and after the 1979 amendment, the secretary becomes acting governor while the governor is absent from the state, impeached or incapacitated in the absence of a lieutenant governor. Some secretaries of state have acted as governor for short periods of time under such circumstances.
Under the original terms of the state constitution, the secretary of state was elected for a two-year term on a separate ticket from the governor or any other official. A 1967 amendment increased the term of the secretary of state, as well as those of other state officials, to four years. There is no limit to the number of terms a secretary of state may hold. In the event of the death, resignation or removal from office of the secretary of state, the governor may appoint someone to fill the vacancy.
Twenty-eight individuals have held the office of secretary of state since Wisconsin's admission to the Union in 1848, two of whom—Fred Zimmerman and Douglas La Follette—served for non-consecutive terms. The first secretary of state was Thomas McHugh, who took office on June 7, 1848. The current secretary is Douglas La Follette, who took office on January 3, 1983; his current term expires in 2015.
From 1836 until 1848, what is now Wisconsin was part of Wisconsin Territory. The Organic Act which created the territory provided for the office of a Secretary, to be appointed by the President, whose duties consisted of recording the proceedings of the territory's legislature, and the laws it produced, as well as the proceedings of the territorial governor. Additionally, in the event of the inability of the governor to serve—due to death or various other circumstances—the Secretary was to assume the governor's powers and carry out his duties.
Wisconsin Territory was formed on July 3, 1836. During the time of its existence, it had six territorial secretaries.
^Wisconsin has had 28 secretaries of state. Two served non-consecutive terms, and are thus counted twice in this table. Theodore Dammann changed his party and is therefore counted twice also.
^When there is no evidence to the contrary, it is assumed that territorial secretaries left office the same day their successors were appointed.
^Wisconsin became a state on May 29, 1848; however, portions of the territory which are now part of Minnesota were not included in the state; some were of the opinion that this area continued to be Wisconsin Territory. Henry Dodge took his seat as a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin on June 23, 1848, thus precluding the possibility that he continued to be the Territorial Governor. John Catlin therefore declared that, as Secretary, he was the acting governor of Wisconsin Territory, an office he exercised until the organization of Minnesota Territory on March 3, 1849.
^When there is no evidence to the contrary, it is assumed that secretaries of state left office the same day their successors were sworn in.
^The fractional terms of some secretaries of state are not to be understood absolutely literally; rather, they are meant to show single terms during which multiple secretaries served due to death.
^Earlier editions of the Wisconsin Blue Books refer to the sixth secretary of state as "Louis P. Harvey" and make it clear that he and "Louis Powell Harvey", the seventh governor of the state, are the same man. More recent editions, however, refer to the seventh governor as "Louis Powell Harvey" and the sixth secretary of state as "Lewis P. Harvey".
^During Timme's first term, the Wisconsin Constitution was amended to say that all elections of state and county officers would henceforth take place in even-numbered years. By the provisions of the amendment, the terms of all officials who would have left office in 1884, including Timme, were extended by one year.
^"Vel Phillips". Topics in Wisconsin History. Wisconsin Historical Society. Retrieved 2010-04-20. "During the absence of both the governor and lieutenant governor, [Secretary of State] Phillips served as acting governor, though only briefly...."