IN THE OLD days, one of the thrills in watching election returns in Illinois was seeing how they didn't come in. Democrats held back from reporting vote totals in Chicago, and Republicans, or so the Democrats assured us, held back from reporting vote totals downstate. "How many votes did we get in the 24th Ward?" someone would ask the ward committeeman. "How many do you need?" was the reputed reply.

The beneficiaries of all this dubious business were far removed from it, socially and legally. Illinois machines had a habit of slating for the highest offices blue-ribbon tickets, men of high social standing and unblemished reputation. Such are the two would-be governors who have been waiting on the Cook County results since Tuesday: James Thompson, son of a doctor, former U.S. attorney and governor the past six years, and Adlai Stevenson III, son of a corporation lawyer who became governor and ran for president, himself a former state treasurer and U.S. senator. Mr. Thompson has now claimed victory; Mr. Stevenson has retired to his farm to set up a transition team.

In the old days, their fate would have depended on the count in the 24th, on which centered those charges of fraud in the 1960 presidential election. Ward 24's Democratic committeemen included the likes of Jacob Arvey, who later became Illinois' Democratic boss, and Ben Lewis, who in 1964 was found suffering from a Chicago form of lead poisoning. "Republican" poll watchers never rocked the boat, and so no one questioned the late tallies from the 24th Ward. The people -- as many of them as needed -- had spoken.

Sad to say, the 1982 reasons for delay are not so colorful. What an orator might have called augmenting voter turnout was pretty much eliminated 10 years ago, after a vigorous campaign of exposure by the Better Government Association and the Chicago Tribune and a series of prosecutions by U.S. Attorney Thompson. Today, the computer count has been delayed by what Chicago Board of Elections Chairman Michael Lavelle describes, in language District residents will find familiar, "a minor glitch," and by the fact that some computer ballots cannot be counted because they swell when wet and, of course, it rained. Both candidates had representatives at the counting and expressed confidence in its honesty, if not its accuracy. The thing will be settled, sooner or later.

Of course this is an improvement over the bad old days. But aren't you just a little bit sorry that Chicago is, contrary to the late alderman Paddy Bauler, ready for reform?