BACK WHEN political/racial discrimination against the District of Columbia was a lot less subtle, the good old boys in Congress simply saw to it that residents of the capital city had no democratic franchise to speak of -- no elected officials. Then over the years people came up with a new way to placate the second-class citizens of Washington: toss them some pretend titles, like "mayor" for a commissioner appointed by the president and "city council" for another bunch of presidentially chosen overseers. For people whose "school board" was being chosen by federal judges, this was heady stuff.

Eventually residents got to elect people for these jobs, but like Americans anywhere else on this continent, they sought representation in Congress. Fine, said Congress, elect a delegate to the House of Representatives who will be a member of the club in every respect except where it really counts: when votes are taken on the floor. Going along again with the game of less-than-genuine titles, the man elected to this job for all 19 years of its existence has always called himself "congressman." That, so far, is as much as the rest of the country has allowed.

But now the city itself has taken up the game, having decided to elect two people who will be called "senators" and another person who will be called "representative" -- but who will be nothing of the sort. It's a warmed-over idea from old statehood efforts launched in parts of the country that didn't have a delegate already in the House. But never mind: this fall voters here will elect a new delegate to work for the city in Congress, while three other pretend members of Congress do what they can to lobby for statehood.

The best known candidate for one of these new, so-far unpaid and ill-defined offices is Jesse Jackson, who says that if elected he will regard himself as a senator and will urge voters to do the same, "so we can get used to being free." There is a possibility here, of course, that voters will get used to being fooled again -- and that Congress won't be fooled for a minute.

Still, the offices are on the ballot, and voters can't avoid spending some time casing the field. They should look for candidates who may put these jobs in some reasonable perspective and who at least will seek to help rather than to upstage or undercut the District's duly elected -- if insufficiently empowered -- delegate. It is demeaning for the residents of this city to have to settle for pretend democracy on Capitol Hill.