NOW IS THE TIME to come to the aid of a third party. That is, if you or anyone else you care about is planning to run for president next November as anything other than a Republican or a Democrat.

It is true, and lamentable, that voters have lapsed in their allegiance to the two major parties. But state legislatures have done their devious best to give Republicans and Democrats an exclusive franchise on the selection of the president. At this relatively early point in the political year, for example, would-be third-party founders can forget about Maryland, New Mexico and Ohio. In Maryland, one-third of the required 55,517 petition signatures had to be submitted by March 3. New Mexico's petitions were due one day later. In Ohio, where the law requires that the people who circulate the petitions, as well as those who sign them, must be Ohio voters, the 5,000 required signatures had to be in my March 20. These three states, among them, have 38 of the 270 electoral votes necessary to be elected in November.

Other states that insist that petition-circulators be registered voters of that state are California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Virginia and West Virginia. These states together have 181 electoral votes. A major and lengthy organizational effort would undoubtedly be required to identify and recruit just the legal petition-circulators in these states.

But there are further obstacles to a third party's gaining ballot position. A Delaware law demands that the signer of a petition include his or her Social Security number along with name and address. A Texas statute prohibits anyone who has voted in a presidential primary from signing a third-party petition. A Utah law requires that each petition signature be notarized. None of these states, however, can match the hurdle Michigan has thrown up to a third party. Michican simply has no procedure for a new third party to win listing on the November presidential ballot -- no procedure at all.

State laws like these may provide some comfort to the admirers of our traditional two-party system, and even more comfort to the campaign staffs of former California governor Ronald Reagan and President Carter, the two front-runners for their parties' nominations. But it strikes us as terribly ironic that in a 20-year period when great progress has been made in enlarging voter participation (by abolishing the poll tax, enacting voting rights legislation, etc.), scant attention has been paid to the deliberate efforts undertaken by many state legislatures to limit the choices available to old and new voters alike. In fact, enlarging the franchise and restricting the choice is more than an irony. It is an indefensible inconsistency.