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WERE IT ANY other place, you might believe it was just a computer glitch. Some inexplicable byte malfunction. Geez, we're sorry, Ms. McCartney. We'll make sure that it never happens again.

What makes the story hard to swallow is this isn't just any place. It's the Erie County Board of Elections.

In theory, the Board of Elections is there to serve. To ease the way to Election Day for any candidate.

In reality, it's a patronage pit dedicated to the principles of modern party politics: Help the candidate the party wants and to heck with everybody else. That way, politics stays an insiders' game. Common folk naive or foolish enough to run for office are pecked to political death.

Imagine it. Civic-minded outsiders set aside their cynicism, run for office, go door-to-door every night, drain their savings accounts, and all they get from the board is an obstacle course. Disillusioned and beaten, they return to the real world wise enough to know never to try this again.

God bless America.

It all happens in an innocuous brick building on West Eagle Street. It ought to be a dark castle surrounded by a moat.

It's easier to vacation in Castro's Cuba than to pry information out of the board.

There are a million ways to kill a candidacy: Take forever to hand over voter lists, so newcomers don't know what doors to knock on or where to mail fliers; "misplace" voter registration forms, so candidates can't sign up new voters.

Or, in this case, give a candidate a screwed-up voter list and blame it on a computer.

Sue McCartney is running for Common Council on three minor-party lines. She finished a close second in the Democratic primary to the party-endorsed candidate. She's bright and has the energy of a horde of hamsters. She has never before run for office -- and is doing it while working full time and raising two kids.

She's not naive, having gotten whacked around in 20 years as an activist. But even she is getting an education.

McCartney asked the Board of Elections two weeks ago for a voter list in her Niagara District.

After eight days -- a lifetime, with Election Day just seven weeks away -- she got a computer disk with the names and addresses.

She was about to mail thousands of fliers when a volunteer, just for fun, looked up his own name on the list. And noticed his house number was wrong.

He wasn't alone.

As they soon discovered, every house number on the list was wrong.

Had McCartney sent out a bulk mailing, the fliers would have been destroyed as undeliverable. The campaign -- which may raise 10 grand, max -- would have flushed thousands of dollars down the drain. And she would have lost another precious week of time.

"It would have been disastrous," said McCartney, who runs Buffalo State College's Small Business Development Center.

None of this comes as a surprise to anybody who has been around.

If the Board of Elections wanted to encourage people to run for office, it would put out a how-to brochure and leave it in every library and office lobby.

Don't hold your breath waiting for the first printing.

McCartney has no illusions. She has "no doubt" there was no computer glitch.

"The idea is to discourage (unendorsed) candidates," she said, "and derail your time line. Every day is so critical."

Board of Elections officials, predictably, disavowed any bad intent.

"It was a computer glitch, I have no idea why it happened," said Eric Hucksoll, secretary to Democratic Elections Commissioner Larry Adamczyk. "It's the first time I've ever seen something like that."

Hucksoll said it took eight days to come up with the list in the first place because workers were totaling votes from the primary.

It would all be easier to swallow, if the board didn't have a long and inglorious history of making life miserable for the unwanted.

One more thing. When a McCartney volunteer went to the board to complain, Hucksoll made a computer disk with the correct addresses in five minutes. No mistakes, no eight-day wait.

"I had the original backup file and used that," explained Hucksoll.

If he got the right addresses from the original file the second time, what happened the first time?

"I'm still looking into that," he replied.

There's no point in going after Hucksoll. He just works there.

It's the party bosses who call the shots. For them, it's not how you play. It's whether you win.

It's an election. Nobody said anything about democracy.

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