District resident Samuel Lyndell Powell is running for president. The 46-year-old goes by the nickname "Uncle Sam," and on the campaign Web site Project Vote Smart (www.vote-smart.org), he lists among his qualifications an affection for all animals -- especially dogs. However, his "most special talent" is his ability to "whistle any song written."

Every election has its share of independents, though with a few notable exceptions (Ralph Nader comes to mind), most campaign in noble obscurity. Take Robert Lee of Alexandria, for example, who is mounting his sixth presidential challenge since 1984: He says his dream team would include Yo Yo Ma as secretary of education; Clint Eastwood as director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; and Bill Gates as secretary of the Treasury.

So how do these idealists join the race? It's easier than you might think -- and, better yet, there's still plenty of time. As long as you're a natural-born U.S. citizen (sorry, Gov. Schwarzenegger), age 35 or older, and have lived in the country for at least 14 years, you can grab a catchy slogan and follow this primer.

GET YOUR NAME OUT. Rules differ by state. To be listed on the ballot in the District, you'll need a petition signed by 3,500 registered D.C. voters filed with the D.C. Board of Elections by 5 p.m. on Aug. 17. In Virginia, you'll need more than 10,000 signatures, with at least 400 from each of the state's 11 congressional districts, filed by Aug. 20. And in Maryland, you'll need a petition signed by 28,000 registered voters, filed by Aug. 2. You'll also need a running mate from outside your state, so start sweet-talking long-distance friends.

If finding tens of thousands of John Hancocks sounds daunting -- and assuming you're not Puff Daddy, we can assume it does -- don't give up: You don't have to be on the ballot to run. If you can persuade voters to write your name in the blank section on the ballot when they cast their votes, you can run as a write-in candidate. Better still, the registration deadline for write-ins in the District is 4:45 p.m. on Nov. 9 -- a full week after the polls close! In Maryland you'll have to be quicker (Oct. 27), and in Virginia, you'll need to be quicker still (Oct. 23).

CONQUER THE RED TAPE. Whether you're on the ballet or a write-in, you must satisfy certain requirements. First, you have to file a notarized Declaration of Candidacy with the local board of elections. You'll also need to nominate people to the Electoral College (three in the District, 10 in Maryland and 13 in Virginia). They must be registered voters in and residents of the state/District (and yes, Mom will do). If you plan to raise more than $5,000, you must also register with the Federal Election Commission, which monitors compliance with campaign finance regulations.

PREPARE TO PAY. In Virginia and Maryland, as long as you're a registered write-in candidate, your total will be tallied. But in the District, the Board of Elections will not count individual write-ins unless the election is won by less than 1 percent, triggering a recount. To find out how many votes you received, you'll need to pay $50 per precinct, or $7,100 for all 142 precincts. But hey, who cares about 10 or 20 votes? Just running for our nation's highest office is reward enough. (Right, Mr. Gore?)

The electoral process has many nuances. For in-depth information on each of these areas, see www.dcboee.org (Washington), www.sbe.state.va.us (Virginia) and www.elections.state.md.us (Maryland).

Paul Berger and Kate Stohr