IN THE short and not-so-happy annals of the Carter administration, very few performances have received such uniformly abusive and negative reviews as the collection handling of the John Anderson insurgency. In the space of about eight weeks, Rep. Anderson has been transformed in the eyes of many from a sour-grape non-winner of six Republican primaries to almost a kind of embodiment of a test of whether fair play and decency dwell in our national political life. And the transforming has been done by the Carter people.

The latest development is the report that the Democratic National Committee, now as ever on the brink of bankruptcy, spent some of its finite resources to underwrite the Massachusetts court challenge to John Anderson's being listed on the November ballot. This information came out only after, in the worst Perry Mason fashion, Mr. Anderson's attorneys subpoenaed telephone records to establish the DNC's link with the Boston election laws attorney.

Something is wrong here. It is not a matter of state election laws or signatures on a petition or the intent or interpretation of a statute. What is wrong is that lawyers, recruited by the Democratic Party leadership -- lawyers who in other times were active in efforts to enlarge the franchise by abolishing poll taxes, harsh residency laws and unfair registration procedures, and also to write and enact the Voting Rights Act -- are now using their energy and skill to limit the choice of the voters. Americans are quite emphatic on the subject of fair play, and that sense of fair play has been affronted by the Democrats' organized efforts to keep John Anderson out of the race.

The president did not help his own cause by his earlier refusal to debate in the general election if an invitation were extended to Rep. Anderson, a position from which Mr. Carter has since retreated. But the upshot has been that Rep. Anderson -- who was beginning to get a self-righteousness rap before all this -- now seems headed for quasi-martyrdom. The Democrats seem determined to rescue and bolster his campaign by trying to deny it breathing space. They are his secret weapon.