IF THERE HAS been any shred of hope among believers in down-home democracy that the District of Columbia really might hold timely, semi- smooth elections this fall, they can forget it. So compounded is the election mess today that city hall is long past the point of no returns in '83--and say your prayers for '84. The only people who should be running at this point--for cover--are those incumbents whose inaction and reaction over too many months has turned the elections board office into a field of bureaucratic poison ivy: nobody wants to go near it, be it as a board member, executive director or technical expert. And when it comes to preserving what local self-government this city has struggled to win over the decades, one more botched election could be the one that breaks the whole works.

The cast in order of appearance begins with Mayor Barry, who took time and a half in moving to fill two vacancies on the three-member elections board. Next comes William Spaulding, whose council committee capped a losing season of playing with proposals for registration and an elections schedule by rejecting the two nominees Mr. Barry finally did get around to selecting.

This cheap shot by the council committee--taken before a scheduled hearing could be held--made the mayor's mission that much harder, and little wonder: "But I am getting close," Mr. Barry said last week. "That has made it difficult. I have been turned down by over a half-dozen people who ordinarily would not have turned me down, who ordinarily would have said, 'I will be glad to serve.' But they were afraid that they would be treated shabbily in an embarrassing way."

You'd better believe it--and don't stay up too late waiting for those new staff people to show up, either. Who's going to sign up for a new job without any clue as to who the bosses will be? And even if the perfect people were to step into every lame- duck or vacant position this morning, could they whip the act together in time?

The risk is too great, as Council Chairman Clarke and other members have concluded. In spite of the rug-pulling act by the Spaulding committee, the council has proceeded with the complex job of redrawing boundaries for advisory neighborhood commission elections that are scheduled for this fall-- but that should be delayed until next year. School board elections, too, should be shifted to coincide with next year's council elections--not only because the city is unready, but also because the odd-year elections have drawn poorly; though many school- parent voters may prefer these smaller, more directly concerned turnouts, it's been more expensive than expansive.

Similarly, the election of congressional lobbyists for statehood might well await agreement on a statehood constitution with more substance and standing than the draft last approved.

It is shameful enough for a city to have to postpone a democratic exercise on a call of unreadiness by certain incumbents, but to forge ahead at breakneck speed on the rims of two wheels is to invite the lifting of the hard-won license to proceed at all.