The first votes in the 2004 presidential election will be cast today in the District of Columbia, and then promptly discarded.

Or more specifically, the votes will be counted, and the totals publicized, but nothing will happen: No delegates will be selected, there will be no direct effect on anything in the real world, and to the extent that the vote will "send a message," it is overwhelmingly likely that no one will be listening very hard, since the ballot for this Democratic primary is conspicuously lacking the names of most of the major Democratic presidential candidates.

This is a "nonbinding" or "advisory" primary, meaning that, although a primary is already one very large step removed from an election -- typically selecting delegates who go to a convention to nominate someone who very well may be defeated by the incumbent president -- this particular primary is pre-negated, structurally neutered, designed to take that already questionable impact on the world and reduce it to something infinitesimal. This is like something dreamed up in a place unfamiliar with the rituals of democratic government, or perhaps in West Palm Beach.

Fairness check: It's possible that the results will send a shock wave through the Democratic political establishment, and the cynics will get their comeuppance, and the world will finally come to realize that the D.C. primary rules. But it's also possible that the vote will have the impact of a murmur in a hurricane.

This could be a dissertation written in the sand as the tide comes in.

This could be a stone carving on the top of a steeple, known but to God.

Imagine the sound of one hand (the left) clapping.

There are people who still believe in this primary, passionately, and have no truck with the naysayers in the media and the national Democratic Party establishment.

"Frankly, it violates the establishment code," says D.C. Council member Jack Evans. "We're doing this anyway. Let the chips fall where they may."

The District's nonvoting representative in Congress, Eleanor Holmes Norton, has been prominent in the effort to transform the primary into something larger, a protest against the lack of congressional voting rights for the District. This isn't just about the presidency; this is about taxation without representation. It is perhaps a rather complicated message by proxy.

"We're not crazy, we know that this vehicle is far from perfect," Norton said yesterday. "You have to grab hold of what you can."

The primary was originally scheduled for May, by which time the nomination would have long since been decided. The D.C. Council decided to move the primary to January, hoping to draw attention to the voting rights issue. But that violated a cardinal rule of modern American presidential politics: Only Iowans and New Hampshirites are allowed to be gatekeepers to the presidency. Iowa has caucuses, New Hampshire has a primary. It is practically in the United States Constitution at this point, possibly in Article V. All the reporters and pundits and TV crews and political hacks make their hotel reservations long in advance; some have reserved seats at the bar of the Sheraton Wayfarer near Manchester.

The Democratic National Committee abhorred the District's date change, along with a similar attempt by Michigan to jump the gun, and a ruckus ensued. Some local activists had a plan to defy the DNC and send delegates to the Democratic National Convention knowing that they would be locked out of the hall. The idea was modeled on the protest of Mississippi civil rights activists in 1964, though WTOP political analyst Mark Plotkin also cites "The Producers" and the whole idea of success through failure.

But this was perhaps too elaborate a plan. In a narrow vote, the local party last year backed down, deciding to make the January primary nonbinding. The actual delegates will be selected in party caucuses in February and March.

The original plan "required defiance. It required being inappropriate," Plotkin said yesterday. "There's a pathology of accommodation and acceptance in this place."

The big blow came in the fall, when five major Democratic candidates -- Wesley Clark, John Edwards, Richard Gephardt, John Kerry and Joe Lieberman -- yanked their names from the ballot, deferring to national party officials. Election officials then produced a ballot that has no space for a write-in candidate. The message is: If you take your name off our ballot, we will make sure no one can vote for you.

Norton is irritated by this turn of events but says someone can still scribble a name in the margin. Such votes apparently will be invalidated, and thus not be "officially" counted as part of the nonbinding advisory vote total.

"You can write on the ballot. We can't guarantee that those will be counted, but it will contribute to turnout," Norton says. "You will be counted as someone who came out to express your protest at not having voting rights."

The Norton formula -- send a message! -- has one potential problem, in that low turnout might be interpreted as a sign that people don't really care that much about taxation without representation. Indeed this is always a problem with political events with no direct results, only metaphysical interpretations.

Evans, who is co-chairman of Howard Dean's campaign in the District, argues that a good showing by Dean would draw national attention. In other words, Evans thinks the actual presidential tally may be the secret meaning of this presidential primary.

"If Dean wins in a predominantly African American city with a Southern tilt to it, that's a big story," Evans says.

Dean, who has received endorsements from eight council members, declined to show up for the primary's only debate Friday. Making an appearance were the three other "major" national candidates on the ballot (as always, it is unclear how the major-minor demarcation is decided, or by whom, or when, or based on what criteria): Dennis J. Kucinich, Carol Moseley Braun and Al Sharpton. Dean was represented by an empty chair and a nameplate, and the other candidates made sure to deride his failure to show up for the nonbinding advisory quasi-primary.

Sharpton has held rallies in the city in recent days, and last-second campaigning has included automated phone calls by actor Danny Glover on behalf of Kucinich. But election fever has not exactly gripped the capital.

Braun, the former senator, says she kept her name on the ballot in the District out of respect for Norton and the other voting-rights activists (she points out that as a legislator in Illinois, she backed D.C. statehood as early as 1981), but she adds, "I put precious few resources into this effort because there are not delegates associated with it."

She's a realist.

Eleven of the candidates on the D.C. ballot are Democrats, and two are listed as belonging to the DC Statehood Green Party. Republicans in the District, if there are any, will not be permitted to participate today, nor is anyone who is an Independent.

This turned out to be a ballot with easy-on, easy-off access. Essentially anyone could join the fun. Among those running is Harry Braun (no relation to the former senator), the only candidate whose slogan is "Making America Energy Independent & Pollution-Free with Windship Hydrogen Production Systems."

"I'm talking about making the hydrogen from water," Braun said in a phone interview Sunday. "President Bush wants to make it from coal and nuclear power. That's not clean hydrogen, that's filthy hydrogen, and that's nonrenewable hydrogen."

The Braun plan is to build "windships," which he describes as 500 to 1,000 feet tall, with the "hull" anchored under the sea just off the coast. A large mast would hold wind turbines. A crew, below water, would run the machinery to convert ocean water to liquid hydrogen. Each windship would cost $10 million. How many of these enormous windships would Braun need?

"About a million," he said. The project would cost $6 trillion total, in his estimation.

Meanwhile David Cobb, seeking the Green Party nomination, believes the D.C. primary will help the credibility of his candidacy. "Our participation in the primary is another indication of our growing reality as a serious, credible political party," he said.

Another candidate is Lyndon LaRouche, one of the deans of the political fringe. LaRouche is a difficult figure to describe, as his theories are flecked with esoteric conspiracies. His Web site describes his belief that Vice President Cheney is one of the "Beast-Men," and says a recent piece of writing by LaRouche is an "assault on the Cheney grouping, by establishing its philosophical roots in the history of Synarchism, the reactionary current which created a series of fascist 'Beast-men,' beginning with Napoleon Bonaparte, and going through Hitler, Mussolini, and up to the present day."

Another candidate is a California man named Lucian Wojciechowski. A phone call to Wojciechowski did not yield abundant information about his political views, though he did forcefully advocate the construction of 40-story buildings, each many miles long, to run up the California coastline from San Diego to Los Angeles.

He also mentioned a recent skirmish with the court system.

"I couldn't leave Imperial County for a while because two women accused me of doing something I didn't do, and I had to go to court, and I missed the debates. We're going to sue them for a billion dollars," he said.

The accusation?

"Lewd conduct."

Also on the ballot is Vermin Supreme, a performance artist who has appeared regularly at political events over the years with a large black boot jammed upside down on his head. Among other positions, he advocates mandatory toothbrushing. He also wants scientists to genetically engineer flying monkeys to serve as tooth fairies.

So then: Can this primary be saved?

"People can belittle it all they want," Evans says. "The fact is, we're having the first primary in the nation."

And perhaps in some ways the best.

The candidate slate in the primary includes, from left, Rep. Dennis Kucinich, Harry Braun, Carol Moseley Braun (no relation) and Lyndon LaRouche. Washington officially chooses delegates at caucuses in February and March.Al Sharpton, being interviewed on Georgia Avenue yesterday, is one of the few "major" candidates on the ballot today, and one of fewer who have campaigned here. Al Sharpton, greeting Kent Gilmore in a Georgia Avenue sandwich shop, has held rallies in the city in recent days.A drawing on candidate Harry Braun's Web site, which advocates solving U.S. energy needs by using "windships" to extract hydrogen from water.