IMAGINE THE chaotic scene in the offices of the Virginia State Board of Elections at high noon on Aug. 20, the petition-filing deadline for third-party presidential candidates trying to get on the state ballot in November. Eight or 10 campaign workers for Ralph Nader, having burst through the doors just 25 minutes before the deadline, are sprawled over the reception room floor, shuffling hundreds of petition sheets strewn about on the carpet. The twentysomething Nader workers are crouched over nearly 13,000 signatures; they are trying valiantly to sort the petitions by geographic origin according to the state's 11 congressional districts, to comply with long-standing electoral board rules. Employees of the electoral board watch the mayhem, amused or annoyed depending on their mood.

The clock is ticking, and soon it is past the witching hour. The petitions are in, of course, but still not completely sorted; that would take till about 12:45 p.m. So here's the issue: Should Mr. Nader be kept off the ballot in Virginia, a potential battleground state, for missing the noon petition-filing deadline?

We certainly don't think so. Whatever one's view of Mr. Nader's candidacy -- or the organizational prowess of his campaign -- he ought to be given a reasonable chance to appear on state ballots if he follows the rules. In this case, it seems clear the Nader campaign was in substantial compliance with the requirement that he get his signatures in on time, the last-minute sorting being mainly a clerical function. (Other challenges to his petitions, based on the way signatures were gathered or the identity of the signers, may eventually prove to have more merit.)

Predictably, however, politics and lawyers quickly asserted themselves, and Mr. Nader's candidacy in Virginia is now an election-year football, as it has become in other states. Initially, the secretary of the State Board of Elections, Jean R. Jensen, ruled that Mr. Nader had failed to comply with the petition rules, based on advice she received from the state attorney general's office. But Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore, a Republican, reversed his own office's stance last Monday, speciously telling the Elections Board that the rule requiring that ballots be sorted by congressional district had never been formally approved by the board -- even though it has been clearly understood and in effect as long as anyone can remember. Now the Democrats are fighting back, insisting that Mr. Nader be held to the same standard as the other third-party candidates, from the Libertarian Party and the Constitution Party, who did manage to submit their petitions on time and properly sorted.

Democrats are worried the Nader candidacy will harm Sen. John F. Kerry's candidacy as it harmed Al Gore's in 2000; for the same reason, Republicans want him on as many state ballots as possible. In many places, the struggle to get his name on ballots has been a nasty, no-holds-barred fight. But even in such a brawl, common sense should have a place, and here common sense is on Mr. Nader's side.