(CBS News) Imagine that the umpire in a baseball game was affiliated with one of the teams on the field. Would you trust him to call the game fairly?
You most likely would not. Yet when it comes to elections, Americans trust officials from the two political parties to oversee the process in a fair way.
There are 36 states in which elections are overseen by an elected, partisan secretary of state or lieutenant governor, according to the National Association of Secretaries of State. In another three states - Florida, Pennsylvania and Texas - partisan secretaries of state appointed by the governor oversee elections.
These officials vow to carry out their duties in an impartial manner. The Constitution of the National Association of Secretaries of State says that members commit to "practicing fair and unbiased election administration that recognizes each eligible citizen's right to cast his or her vote, and for that vote to be counted with the highest regard to constitutional foundations."
But there have been numerous decisions that have prompted critics to call that promise into question. The most famous comes from Florida, where, in the year 2000, Secretary of State Katherine Harris halted recounts and certified George W. Bush the winner of the state's decisive electoral votes. This year, in Florida, Colorado and other states, efforts by Republican secretaries of state to purge non-citizens from voter rolls have left critics alleging voter suppression.
Ohio, another battleground state, has seen more than its fair share of this sort of controversy. In 2004, Democrats successfully sued Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, a Republican, for a provisional ballot policy they said was designed to suppress the Democratic vote. Blackwell was succeeded by Democrat Jennifer Brunner, who was also widely seen as having tried to tilt the playing field in her party's favor. In August, the Obama administration successfully sued Brunner's successor, Jon Husted, for giving military voters (who tend to vote Republican) extra time to vote but denying that opportunity to civilian voters.
Many partisan secretaries of state have aspirations to continue rising through their party ranks. They thus have a particular incentive to make decisions that help that party achieve its goals.
"It's an inherent conflict of interest because you've got an umpire who's a betting stake in the game," said Ohio State University law professor Daniel Tokaji, an expert in election law.