Shortly after 1 p.m., 83-year-old Glen Hammer, owner of the Chevrolet garage here since 1923, and his next-door neighbor, C.R. Sipe, a barber, repeated an Election Day ritual begun nearly 50 years ago in this mountain hamlet.

The two men walked over to the courthouse on Main Street to vote in the town elections, and, as townsfolk have been for five decades, they were greeted with a blank ballot.

By tradition, no one files for local office in Monterey, a town of 250 in a region west of Harrisonburg that is so remote it is called Virginia's Switzerland.

Write-ins, as they have for years, today decided who will be Monterey's mayor and who will be the six members of the Town Council for the next two years.

Nobody can remember the last time somebody formally sought public office here -- only that it was a woman, and she lost.

Hammer, who was Highland County sheriff for 24 years and was a member of the Town Council in the 1930s and '40s, said that there is "no need" to campaign. "Everybody knows everybody else," he said.

Sometimes "a bunch of people will get together and work up a slate a few days before the election and pass out a sheet, or stick it in screen doors," said former mayor Joseph Pritchard. That is about as formal as the election process gets here.

Sometimes it pays not to be in town on Election Day. Current Mayor George McWhorter was first elected when he was "not here to defend myself," working 1,000 miles away in Kansas.

Today's election was somewhat predictable. Although neither the mayor nor any of the council members had said outright that they were running, all said they would not turn down the jobs if reelected.

Thirty-five persons cast ballots today, writing in the names of 35 persons for the six council spots and six persons for mayor. All of the incumbents were easily reelected, getting vote totals ranging from 27 to 16. The next closest person drew seven votes. Among others who got votes today were Pritchard, five for council and one for mayor, and Hammer and Sipe, one each for council.

Town officials blamed the low vote on apathy and the town's declining population.

Actually, if anyone were campaigning openly here, the job of finding voters would not be easy. The town, the county seat of Highland County, the state's least-populated county, has 250 residents and 163 registered voters.

The county, four hours southwest of Washington by car and split by the parallel Bullpasture and Cowpasture rivers, has 2,800 residents scattered over 438 square miles.

They are outnumbered 5 to 1 by sheep, according to the county agricultural office.

In the last town election two years ago, 60 voters wrote in the names of 47 persons.

Election law requires voters to pick a mayor separate from the council, which may have allowed absentee winner McWhorter to edge Janice Warner in 1984. Some say Warner made the mistake of telling a reporter for the weekly Recorder newspaper that she would serve if elected.

That is a statement that in these parts is viewed as tantamount to inviting a draft.

Although she got more votes than anyone else, Warner's votes were split by those who wanted to elect her to the council and those who wanted her to be mayor.

She lost the mayor's race that year by three votes and a council seat by a few more. Today, Warner got six votes for council and one for mayor.

Registrar Irene McAllister said that few people vote for themselves because "most people really don't want the job. It's a lot of headaches for nothing."

Not quite. Council members get $40 a meeting, but only if they attend, while the mayor pulls in $100 a month.

Public service became a little more attractive after Mayor John Appelford changed the monthly council meeting to the first Tuesday, "so we could watch Monday night football," McWhorter said.

McWhorter said he "sure didn't vote for myself" today, although he appears to be a man who enjoys his work.

A native Georgian, he moved to the area 11 years ago to help build Virginia Power's massive pump-storage hydroelectric station in adjoining Bath County.

"The people of Monterey are wonderful," he said in what might have been a campaign speech, had he made one. "But the damned [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] and State Water Control Board are a pain . . . . They just don't recognize our unique situation," he said, referring to problems with plans for a second sewage treatment plant.

The town may have found a relatively low-cost solution to the problem, however. It has built a pond and filled it with floating hydrangea, whose roots are supposed to help treat sewage.

The challenge is whether this method, called successful in the Deep South, will work this far north, especially in a county with the highest average elevation (between 3,000 and 4,400 feet) of any county east of the Rocky Mountains.

The isolation and slow pace have attracted a number of former big-city residents. Among them is Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the death-and-dying author who created a stir last fall with a plan to expand her hospice here to include children with acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

Monterey is too distant for commuting. But a number of former D.C. residents have retired here.

One council member, retired state police officer C.B. Fox Jr., is a former Fairfax County resident, and two of the three election clerks are refugees from the Washington area.

Jobs are scarce, and as a result most of the newcomers are retirees.

Employment peaked in 1979, during construction of the power plant, when 3,500 workers arrived in Highland and Bath counties, creating a severe housing shortage. When the power facilities were completed in 1983, power company employment dropped to 100 and plunged the area into a economic tailspin from which it still suffers. The most recent statistics show unemployment at 29.8 percent in Bath and 16.9 percent in Highland.

Teen-agers gather at night under the blinking light on Main Street -- the only electronic traffic control device in the county -- to talk about the future. Many leave upon graduation, although only two of the 22 in this year's graduating class plan to attend college.

A dress factory and a data processing plant, whose contracts include one with the state of Maryland, employ mostly women and at minimum wage. Twenty-eight percent of the county's land is in public ownership, and 36 percent of the remaining land is owned by nonresidents.

Patti Faulders, who grew up in Arlington County, came here in 1984 after graduating with a degree in forestry from Virginia Tech. She said she "discovered the art of conversation. People have time to talk to each other." Among her new hobbies is "dancing at auctions" with the High County Cloggers.

Another recent immigrant is Palmer Stacy, who until a year ago was administrative assistant to Sen. John P. East (R-N.C.). Stacy, 36, a Duke University law graduate, and his wife Susan first came here a year and a half ago and "fell in the love with the place. It was the most beautiful place we had ever seen."

They decided that they wanted to live here, but "the question was how to make a living."

The answer came from the local newspaper, whose owners of 30 years, Joseph and Ada Pritchard, were ready to retire.

The problem was, the Stacys knew nothing about running a newspaper. But they hired an editor, Alexandria printer Gene Christie, and persuaded the Pritchards to stay on as employes.

The newspaper is a haven for big-city dropouts. Editor Christie was born in New York, and reporter Winnie Richardson, a Chicagoan who grew up in Grosse Pointe, Mich., and went to school in Boston, worked as a television assignment editor and camera worker in Washington and Dallas.

Then "a high school sweetheart" rekindled an old flame, Richardson said. They were married last spring, when she quit her job at WDVM-TV and moved here.

Richardson is one of the several people who are troubled by the voting tradition. "If they are so apathetic, they should give up the town charter," she said.

"It's a joke," added a woman during lunch at the Maple Restaurant, whose landmark sign bears the shape of a trout.

Stacy's political interests are satisfied by the operation of a small think-tank, the American Immigration Control Foundation, which seeks to stop illegal immigration.

Monterey is "everything we expected," he said. "It's far removed, physically and morally, from our lives in Washington."

Stacy and his wife each got one vote for council today.