Conventional wisdom has it that the District of Columbia bumbled through last Tuesday's primary election count with delayed, error-studded results while Maryland, with seven times the vote volume, breezed through with complete and accurate totals by early in the evening.

It was not that simple.

First, there was only about an hour's difference in the time the two jurisdications complete their final tabulations.

Second, the vote-counting process in the District is admittedly slow and cumbersome, partly as a result of congressional budget cuts over the past years. Those elements produced a jury-rigged hybrid of paper ballots, and old fashioned cardboard ballot boxes, along with keypunch cards, computer printouts and a limited number of electronic vote-counting machines.

"They did just about as well as they could with what they've got." says Al Gollin, an independent statistician, longtime observer of District elections and one the severest critics of the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics in the past.

In contrast, all 1,550 precincts in the state of Maryland were equipped with automatic ballot totaling machines, speeding the count. In the District, there were 33 machines for 137 precincts.

Maryland's 700,000 votes were automatically counted on 6,500 voting machines - an average of about 108 votes per machine. The District's 90,000 ballots were counted on 33 machines - an average of about 2,725 ballots per machine. Thousands of ballots were stacked up for hours waiting their turn to be fed through the counting machines.

Final unofficial statewide totals for Maryland - except for absentee ballots that will be counted next week - were assembled and transmitted by the Associated Press on gubernatorial and other candidates at 2:01 a.m. Wednesday.

In the District, an official printout of citywide totals for mayoral and City Council candidates flashed out of the District's Municipal Center SHARE computer at 3 a.m. 59 minutes after the Maryland totals.

The Maryland State Board of Elections in Baltimore still has not compiled an official total and will not do so until after it receives certified totals from all the counties in the state sometime next week.

The major reason Maryland was perceived by many voters to be far ahead of the District in the count was that most news organizations called Harry R. Hughes the apparent winner of the Democratic primary for governor by 10:30 p.m. Tuesday. The call was made, however, when only about 60 percent of the statewide vote had been counted.

The mayoral contest in the District Democratic primary election, by contrast, was far too close to call at any point during the night, and the final 3 a.m. tabulations showed only a 1,188 vote spread between top vote-getter Marion Barry and second-place candidate Sterling Tucker.

A total of 5,600 still uncounted absentee and challenged ballots conceivably could swing the vote from Barry. The winner will not be certified until after the absentee and challenged ballots are counted on Tuesday.

No significant tabulation errors have been reported in either the Associated Press's Maryland figures or in the District's official computerized totals. At one point during the Tuesday night count, District election workers gave the press a set of erroneous hand-tallied updated figures - later corrected - but they had no bearing on the official computerized totals.

In Maryland each precinct was equipped with hand lever or other voting machines that automatically tallied the votes so that instant machine-by-machine total were available at the close of the polls.

In the District, only 17 of the 137 precincts were quipped with voting machines. Voters in all other precints marked paper ballots and put them in traditional ballot boxes.The boxes were then transported to a central counting room in the Martin Luther King Library downtown where the ballots were fed through 16 vote-counting machines, called Valtecs.

Tally sheet totals from the Valtecs were then transferred to keypunch cards that in turn were fed into the city's SHARE computer several blocks away to give the final citywide totals broken down by precinct, ward, race and candidate.

In Maryland, precinct officials entered machine totals in ledger books, then transported the ledger books to their respective county elections office to consolidate them with other precincts. There, "stringers" or news correspondents specially retained by AP telephoned county totals into an AP central tabulation operation in Baltimore where statewide totals were assembled.

In this way, AP periodically issued updates on the vote total throughout the evening. All but four of the state's 1,550 precincts had been counted by about 1:15 a.m. Wednesday, according to Baltimore AP bureau chief John Woodfield. The final four came in a little later, permitting a final statewide total to be issued on the wires at 2:01 a.m., he said.

Meanwhile, in the District, election officials periodically provided news reporters with a precinct-by-precinct "evening" count. A "morning" count based on ballets collected at midday already had been given reporters shortly after 8 p.m.

The final citywide computer printout was completed at 3 a.m., according to elections board official Richard Owens. At 3:85 a.m., after running off several copies of the printout, Owens returned from the SHARE computer to the central counting room in the King Library and distributed the printouts to the press.

The key to speeding up vote tabulations in the District, officials says is getting voting machines into every precinct so that, as in Maryland, machine-by-machine totals are available immediately after close of the polls.

In past years, Congress has denied District requests for funds to purchase voting machines. But appropriate $650,000 in the fiscal 1979 budget fo new equipment. Elections board officials said they not know yet what specific machines or how many they will purchase.