The National Association of Secretaries of State recently held its annual convention. In the wake of two disputatious presidential elections in a row, there was considerable sentiment at the meeting for a resolution barring state secretaries from simultaneously serving as partisan political officials. In the two states where the greatest controversies arose in 2000 and 2004, Florida and Ohio, this had been a glaring problem.

The convention did the opposite. It passed a resolution stipulating that it was O.K. for secretaries of state to proselytize for their parties’ candidates, indeed even to serve as party chairpersons during the campaign. By inference, the N.A.S.S. would allow such officials to suborn acts of voter disenfranchisement, make rulings contrary to state law, interfere with legally sanctioned recounts, even to later campaign for higher office on the basis of having “carried our state for (the incumbent).”

Deborah L. Markowitz, Vermont’s Secretary of State, attended the convention. She said later that she recognized the need for reform, but added, “It’s hard to change the system. I’m a Democrat. I don’t want to appear partisan.”

There’s the rub. In a two-party system, any move toward reform can be seen as a veiled partisan attack on the integrity of a secretary of state. In 2000, Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, a Republican loyalist and party official who was then planning to run for Congress (she was elected in 2002), declined to recuse herself from the recount dispute and issued several rulings that aided George W. Bush. In 2004, J. Kenneth Blackwell, Ohio’s Secretary of State and at once a Bush-Cheney reelection fundraiser who had already begun his campaign for governor, became embroiled in court disputes before and after the election. He was later accused of violating state law on recount procedures, and still later failed to appear at the above-mentioned convention and at a Congressional hearing into election reform he had been asked to attend. Since months before Election Day, 2004, Blackwell referred to any and all criticism of his decisions as merely partisan rhetoric on the part of Democrats.

Democrats have been accused of election misconduct as well. Wisconsin’s 2004 presidential tally and Washington State’s 2004 gubernatorial vote count have been challenged by Republicans, who have uttered the word “fraud” no less openly than have Democrats in Florida and Ohio. The point here is not that one party has a monopoly on electoral malfeasance. It is that a fox can’t clean up a henhouse; only a farmer can.

Non-partisan leadership, as distinct from bi-partisan, is urgently needed. The problem cannot be left to secretaries of state who fear a loss of collegiality with members of the opposing party if they take a strong stand in favor of clean elections. That should never be a Republican/Democrat matter.

America’s founding fathers, in particular George Washington, were highly skeptical of political parties. Washington no doubt envisioned how a two-party system would permit a mutual greasing of palms to develop under circumstances like the present ones. Whenever an electorate is sharply divided, as it is today, issues that should be above party politics become tainted with irreconcilable partisan rhetoric. The winning side says, “They’re just playing politics here. Let’s move on.” The losing side says, “No, you cheated. We’re not moving on.” A public perception is already developing that our elections are now decided by whichever party is the better cheater, and that if we can scrutinize Ukraine’s elections for honesty, we should do no less for our own.

In a non-partisan spirit (not bi-partisan) Congress must enact legislation that explicitly bars all state officials, from secretaries of state on down, from engaging in partisan political activity for a period of one year prior to a presidential election. No exceptions. Other reforms are needed, including a paper trail behind all electronic voting machines and public access to the source code inside these machines that would identify fraud and thus prevent tampering. None of these reforms will happen if our elected officials remain Republicans and Democrats first, and public servants second.

Robert Lockwood Mills is an author and essayist who served as a poll watcher in Florida on Election Day, 2004