SOME DAYS we wonder whether the authorities in the District of Columbia are trying to demonstrate that the city is capable of governing itself - or, perhaps, that it isn't . The question was raised most recently by word of the city council's almost unbelievable failure last Friday to do anything about what appears to be a significant error in the ballot that will be used in voting next week on the first proposed amendment to the home-rule charter. The amendment would give local citizens the right to originate legislative proposals and vote on them by referendum. According to the wording of the amendment as it was formally approved by the city council, signatures of at least 5 per cent of the voters in "each of" five wards would be necessary to bring the matter before the entire city.

But - incredibly - that's not the way that provision of the amendment will read on the ballot distributed to voters next Tuesday. On the actual ballot, the words "each of" are missing. The practical effect of that ommission would be to make the process of initating legislation under the amendment significantly easier - and less representative. All that would be required would be an overall total of 5 per cent of the voters, city wide, which means that support of considerably less than 5 per cent in some wards could be offset by heavy support in just one or two wards.

That's obviously not what the council had in mind - but that's what the voters will be voting on, thanks to what seems to have started off with a simple typographical error.Between the time the council passed the proposed amendment and the time it was printed, the words "each of" were left out. Once the council found out about error. It called for an emergency resolution that would have allowed the correction to be made before the ballots were printed. But the various lawyers for the city were at odds as to whether that was possible - pointing out that the law requires a 30-day written notice of a ballot entry or change and questioning the legality of a bill that was passed one way but printed another. You might think that the council could simply waive the rules of the Board of Elections and Ethics and substitute an emergency measure to correct the ballot. But, in a hastly called session last Friday afternoon, the council decided - you may not believe this - to do nothing.

With only a few days to go before the election, there is not much time for emergency action. But our understanding is that it still possible to correct the error at a cost of $20,000 for printing new ballots. That's a lot of money for two little words. What is at stake here, however, is not a typographical error but the integrity of the process of self-determination in the District. We think that's not too high a price to pay to prevent local voters from passing judgment on a proposal that is not the one the council meant to put before them.