Blame apathy, poor advance information or a conference snafu. For whatever reason, most Washingtonians missed the opportunity to directly influence President Carter's thinking on family-oriented social programs for the '80s.

Fewer than 1,000 of the District's approximately 656,000 residents voted March 1 to select delegates to the White House Conference on Families. The eight elected to represent the District -- four whites, three blacks and one Hispanic -- are all Catholic, although only an estimated 13 percent of District residents are.

The conference -- which fulfills a Carter campaign promise to "examine the strengths and weaknesses of American families" and how they are affected by public policy -- will hold national meetings in Baltimore and Minneapolis in June, and in Los Angeles in July.

The findings are expected to have an impact on child-care and economic issues facing the nation's families.

Having grown up black and poor in the District, Anita Shelton, director of the District's Office of Human Rights and a Mount Pleasant resident, thought she would make a good delegate to the conference.

But through a procedural error, her name -- along with an estimated 19 others -- did not appear on the March 1 ballot.

"I ran because I felt there was a need for a representative for the black family in the District," Shelton said. "I felt there were some problems of the black family that should be addressed -- bread-and-butter issues black families face on a day-to-day basis."

Arona McNeill-Vann, a Ward 6 candidate whose name was also omitted from the ballot, said she is "concerned about the whole process" by which delegates were chosen. Like Shelton, she feels that the concerns of blacks and the poor will be glossed over as conservative and liberal factions debate their issues of special interest.

The delegates chosen to represent D.C. were all endorsed by the conservative "pro-family" movement," which includes members of anti-abortion and anti-ERA organizations.

"Most of us who came were pro-life people," said Nellie Gray, president of D.C. Right to Life.

"We did actively try to get candidates," she said. "We see the family as the unit of care for the unborn baby."

But the strong presence of the "pro-life" faction was not the sole source of the conference's troubles. A complex filing and registration procedure meant potential delegates had to fill out several forms and contend with shifting deadlines.

Karl Banks, conference staff director, put it succinctly, "I think that the people got confused."

McNeill-Vann, a teacher who has lived in the District 22 of her 27 years and has been a Ward 6 resident for 12 years, said Barbara Eck, the delegate chosen to represent Ward 6, was not the best person for the job.

"In my opinion, a white, nonworking female is not representative of this ward," she said. McNeill-Vann said that if she had been elected, she would have addressed herself to problems such as the difficulties facing working parents, housing and displacement, which she says are crucial issues in her ward.

Eck counters that she worked hard to get elected and is representative of her ward. "I think the people who got elected were (those) willing to go out and get support," she said.

The other delegates are: Ward 1, Father Joaquin Bazan, Mount Pleasant; Ward 2, Edward C. Smith, Dupont Circle area; Ward 3, Terrence Scanlon, Foxhall NW; Ward 4, Ted Prahinski, North Portal Estates, off upper 26th St. NW; Ward 5 Judith Polhaus, Michigan Park NE; Ward 6, Barbara Eck, Capitol Hill; Ward 7, Ben Thomas, Benning Heights SE; Ward 8, Delores Jordan, Washington Highlands SE.

Some of those omitted from the ballot have contacted Joan Burt, a D.C. attorney whose clients include Black Activist Women, about overturning the election results. She is considering seeking an injunction.

Aside from problems involving delegate selection, turnout at the polls was poor. What some observers -- including state conference coordinator Audrey Rowe -- called voter apathy was made worse by little publicity, inconvenient registration places, nebulous procedural guidelines and general skepticism toward government-sponsored conferences.

The Rev. Joaquin Bazan, pastor of Shrine of the Sacred Heart and Ward 1 delegate, cited another concern. Participants from his parish sought his candidacy, he said, after they heard that several of the ward conference organizers were gay activists aiming to introduce the question of the gay family unit.

"People came to me and said, 'Father, we have to get one person who can organize.' My reaction was it should be a lay person, not a priest. But I had a name everyone could recognize," he said.

Last week, Carolyn Boone Lewis, chairwoman of the D.C. Commission for Women, sent a letter to Mayor Barry criticizing the current delegation, and asking that he discuss with HEW the possibility of setting aside the election and withdrawing the District from the entire conference.

A spokesman for the mayor said it is unlikely he will consider either alternative. He is expected to name four appointees to the delegation by March 31, the deadline for submitting the names to HEW. His appointees are expected to balance the slate, Rowe said.

The Rev. Robert L. Pruitt, pastor of Metropolitan AME Church, 1518 M St. NW, asked about the conference, said, "I think that our people didn't understand the magnitude. . . . Our people are not going to trudge all over town for what they deem as inconsequential. I think that if it were held all over again, you would have a more representative group."