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Political Machines Still Turn Wheels

IF Aaron Weiss were alive today, he'd probably have some advice for the political reformers in Eastern Europe: Do as Americans say, not as they do. Mr. Weiss was a flooring merchant in Queens, N.Y., who in the early '80s decided to run for the city council - the little guy takes on the system, the essential drama that makes American political ideals so attractive in the East bloc now.

To the Democratic machine in Queens, however, it was a threat. The incumbent had been appointed to fill a vacancy. He had little following of his own and seemed vulnerable to challenge. Rather than let the voters decide, the Democratic machine resorted to the kind of tactics that probably aren't featured much on Voice of America broadcasts: It tried to get Weiss's name removed from the ballot for technical violations.

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We often hear about political machines. Weiss found out how they work. His case came before a judge who had signed the incumbent's nominating petition. The special referee in the case - the judge's law secretary - was the wife of an official of a Queens Democratic club that also supported the incumbent. And so on down the line.

Not surprisingly, Weiss didn't get far in the state courts. Finally, he got a sympathetic hearing from a federal judge. But the legal maneuvering exhausted his pro bono attorneys, and he was forced to drop the case. Not long thereafter, he collapsed on a city street and died.

While Congress debates a new campaign spending law, it's important to remember that money isn't the only blotch on American elections today. There are also the party monopolies, chicanery and corruption - and sometimes basic flaws in the process itself: Who gets to run, how they are chosen, who serves as referee. As the East bloc seizes on new democratic forms, America may soon fall behind in the political realm, much as it has done economically to the Japanese.

In some states, elections are relatively open and clean. New York may be the worst example on the other side. Fully half of all the ballot litigation in the country takes place here. ``The election law is nothing more than an incumbents' protection act,'' says Jerry Goldfedder, an attorney associated with the reform wing of the local Democratic Party.

The problem begins with antiquated filing requirements that serve as traps for the unconnected. The party machines have workers (often on public payroll) who scour nominating petitions for picky errors: pages numbered incorrectly, for example. One hapless officeseeker was tossed from the ballot because he filed his nominating petitions at 8:45 a.m., when the law specifies that filing starts at 9:00 a.m.

A thriving election-law bar makes mountains out of procedural molehills. These lawyers sometimes harass signers of an opponent's petition by hauling them into court as witnesses.

In some states, voters can change the law themselves. In New York, they have to rely on legislators - the same ones protected by the current system. ``Since we don't have the initiative or referendum, there's no way to get around these folks,'' says Gene Russianoff of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

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The net effect is a system that looks more like the city's mob-dominated trash-hauling business than the democracy America is supposed to represent to the world.

``The ballot access laws have the effect of closing a system the framers intended to be open,'' says John Feerick, dean of Fordham Law School and chairman of the New York State Commission on Government Integrity.

It's probably no coincidence that many people don't bother to vote. Or even to register. New York ranks 41st among the states in this respect (though archaic registration laws also play a part). Other states do better, but often not by much. In Massachusetts, the leading Democrat in some polls - John Silber, president of Boston University - may be denied a place on the primary ballot by rules of the party's convention.

It doesn't help that just two parties - Republicans and Democrats - have almost a total monopoly on the political process. When the ``Big Three'' dominated the American auto industry, it stagnated. Now lack of competition is doing the same to our political democracy.

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