Washington voters probably will get the chance this fall to launch a four-step process under which the District of Columbia could become a state.

A D.C. Superior Court judge yesterday ordered the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics to begin the process of validating signatures on petitions circulated to get the question on the ballot this fall for a decision by city voters.

The board last May refused to put the initiative on the ballot, saying it was unconstitutional. But Judge William E. Stewart Jr. said it was not within the purview of the board to evaluate the constitutionality of the issue. w

His decision clears the way for a vote on the question in either the Sept. 9 city primary or the Nov. 4 general election.

The petitions contain 21,928 signatures, well in excess of the 12,451 required for such a question to appear on the ballot. If the board finds enough of the signatures are valid, the voters will have a chance to accept or reject it.

Stewart concluded, after reviewing the initiative during court hearings, that the language of the statehood question is "quite normal" and is similar to language in any draft legislation.

Attorneys for both sides will return to court Thursday to ask Stewart to set one of the two possible dates for balloting, unless the lawyers agree on a date before them.

The board's counsel, William H. Lewis, argued in court that the board objected to the initiative because it appeared to violate the city's home rule charter by, in effect, appropriatings funds to finance a constitutional convention that would be convened if the initiative is successful.

Daniel M. Schember, attorney for the Statehood Initiative Committee, argued that some of the board's decisions are motivated by "personal politics." aAs a result, Schember told the judge, there is a "positive danger" in allowing the board to decide which initiatives should appear on ballots.

"We are very happy about the judge's decision," said John Edward Guinan, executive director of the committee. "The judge has affirmed our belief from the beginning that we had a very sound case and opposition did not. Now we can get out of limbo and get on with the campaign for state hood."

Hilda Mason, an at-large city council member and the Statehood Party's only elected office holder, called the board's rejection of the statehood petitions and the subsequent court hearing "a waste of time and the government's money."

In rejecting the initiative, the Board acted against the advice of its lawyer, Lewis, who said he urged from the beginning that the petitions be accepted, and that the process of certifying the signatures should begin.

If approved by D.C. voters, the initiative would authorize the convening of a convention to prepare the constitution under which the new state would function and -- among other things -- to select its name.

If it is approved by a citywide referendum, a new constitution would be presented to Congress. A simple majority of both houses could admit the District of Columbia as the nation's 51st state.