"I CAN SEE we have made some mistakes. But I don't think that there is that big of a problem." That was the response of Teddy Filosofos, the executive director of the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics since last April. We emphatically disagree. In case you haven't heard, fully 17 percent of those who went to vote in the District on Tuesday -- one out of six -- had to vote on challenged ballots because their names were not on the voter lists prepared by the elections board.

Now, it may be true that some people were trying to vote in the wrong precincts -- although those who did so because they were not properly notified of changes in precinct boundaries cannot be considered at fault. And it may be true that some of the 20,000 who had to vote challenged ballots had not actually registered at all. But there is every reason to believe that the large majority of those who were inconvenienced and whose ballots were, because of the challenge procedure, not kept secret as they ought to be, were properly registered voters. Their names should have been on the rolls. With due recognition to the fact that Mr. Filosofos hasn't had as much time in his job as might be desirable, we have to disagree with him: it is that big of a problem. It is in truth an outrage.

Of course, it is not the first time the board of elections has messed up. It has been a constant story over the years. A report submitted to the D.C. Council in May found "acute deficiencies" in the board's "direction and supervision, established and consistent procedures, training of individuals operating the system, and control of information and documents." It has failed to do the job that every other major city seems able to do: compile an accurate voters' list -- suggesting that something more than personal failure is occurring here. Why, and what needs to be done?

What is needed first of all is a complete change of command at the board of elections. But more than that, what is needed is a commitment by the mayor and council to assume responsibility over the board, whose functioning is fundamental to the operation of representative government. We know that some may be dismayed to see a political official assume primary responsibility for an agency that must be impartial. But the reason for insulating the board from political control is a fear that someone will pack the voters' rolls with false registrations. The District's problem is exactly the opposite. There is no political organization on the scene with the inclination or the ability to stuff ballot boxes. What the District needs is to get people on the rolls who belong there.

One reason it has had such trouble is the lack of experience here with electoral politics. The voter registration system is, as these things go, new. And this city still does not have the dense network of political organizations and volunteers, who in the course of their own canvassing, in effect police the voter rolls themselves.

Thorough checking and rechecking -- plodding and boring work -- is essential to the maintenance of any system of voter registration. The District has switched from handwritten to computer listing of voters since the 1980 election -- a switch that was apparently either too rapid or whose results were not checked as thoroughly as they should have been. The board should also have a year-round program of checking voter lists against other information about where people live: telephone directories, city directories, lists of driver's license holders.

In the meantime, to ensure that the District has a complete list of voters for the November election, the board should make available all over the city -- in police stations, public libraries and wherever else makes sense -- lists of registered voters by precinct, so that those whose names are omitted can make sure they're registered where they think they are and/or where they should be.