I HAVE THIS LITTLE secret. I tell no one, but of course everyone will know now. For a time, I was really afraid people would find out, check the records or something and when the subject came up, I either tried to change the subject or I gave the impression I had done what I had not done. I was ashamed. Sometimes, you see, I don't vote.

For a time, even I found this hard to believe. I mean, me, the columnist, the inveterate newspaper reader, the polticial junkie, the guy who could tell you the counties cities are in and has a vague idea of the boundries of congressional districts-me.I didn't vote. It isn't that I don't care about politics or think it don't affect the lives of people. I do. Still, sometimes I don't vote.

I feel guilty about it. I feel like I have a criminal record or once belonged to a suspect organization. It is something only I know about. On election day, for instance, when an editor looking for vignettes about the polling asked me if I had voted, I said not yet. I said I would vote later. It was a lie. I had no intention of voting later. It's not something I wanted to admit.

I didn't vote once before - I can't remember why. When I went to vote at the next election, I'd thought they'd know. I held my breath, afraid someone would say something - afraid one of those nice women would look up from those computer cards and say, "Why Richard Cohen, you didn't vote last time." When the time came, she looked at the card and said nothing. I found you could do it. You could vote when you wanted to and not vote when you wanted to and still remain a citizen.

There was a time when I would not have believed that. Voting, we all have been told, is the responsibility of citizenship and by the time you get out of school you have been taught that bad people litter and start forest fires and don't vote. The message was a simple one, a blunt one, and what it said more or less was that the difference between America and the rest of the world, was that America voted. All this led you to believe that there was something uniquely American about voting and it was something of a shock to me to learn later that I was casting an "Australian Ballot" - whatever that is.

I believed in voting - still do, really. I couldn't wait until I was old enough. Some kids can't wait to drive and some can't wait to drink, but with me it was all of those plus voting. The first election was a real thrill. I voted with relish, like someone finally let into some club, I would have voted twice if it had been allowed. I was and - remain, a real - take-"take" voter, the kind of guy who sees voting as a way of getting even - an act of revenge, a banana peel for the feet of pompous politicians.

As time went by, voting lost some of its kick - but not much. I still believe and I wondered about all those people - as many as half the electorate - who did not vote. Some of that is due to laziness and some of it to poverty - lack of transportation, for instance - and some of it has to do with the system itself - registration and that sort of thing. Some of it has to with ignorance, for not knowing or appreciating the power of the vote, believing that nothing will change and voting cannot make a difference. None of those reasons are mine.

I, for one, don't feel that all politicians are alike or that they all lie. I don't believe, either, that elections can't change anything or that there isn't a dime's worth of difference between Democrats and Republicans. There is often a vast difference, in general some difference and to many people, especially poor people, the differences can matter critically. But this year, at least there was a bumper crop of nonentities running for political office, all of them saying pretty much the same thing. They all promised to reduce taxes . . . by cutting the budget . . . By trimming the fat. It was like a visit to the butcher shop - no poetry here. There was, instead, nothing but a kind of stand-pat negativism.

But there was something more. In my case, as a resident of Washington I voted in the primary, which is the only election that counts in this town. Everything after that is anti climax there being at last count, something like six or seven Republicans here. There was really, no reason to vote - nothing at stake. Under those circumstance, some friends have told me that they vote Communist or Libertarian or something a touch wiggy. They do - it as a protest.

There is, however, another way to protest and that is not to vote at all. There is some sort of ethic though, that says you cannot do that - that it is better to vote ignorant, better to vote dumb, better to vote under any circumstances than not to have voted at all. There is something silly about this and all it does, really is give politicians a feeling they have said something, gotten through, when in fact they have said nothing at all. There are times when there is no one to vote for and no issues at stake. You can stay home. to vote for and no issues at stake. You can stay home. to vote for and no issues at stake. You can stay home. It is a way of sending a message.

It's a way of voting.