It's too bad more Virginians could not have been on hand in the hallowed halls of their state legislative office buildings in Richmond yesterday to find out firsthand what their lawmakers really think of them. In a stunning day's work, members of the privileges and elections committee in the House of Delegates -- obviously terrified at the thought of too many new people in the state turning into real, live voters -- struck a blow for controlled democracy. They gutted a voter-registration bill, leaving nothvision hardly worth pushing through the legislature.

Give the Robb administration its share of credit for this surgery. Administration support for the bill was strikingly absent -- and the lawmakers seized the cue. The way the committee reacted, you would have thought the original measure was a plan to overthrow the whole state government. Actually, it contained eight recommendations from a special commission that the governor had charged with looking into registration. Heading that committee -- and left looking foolish after yesterday -- was Gov. Robb's own lieutenant governor, Richard Davis.

Six of the eight provisions had been dropped even before any serious consideration began. What was left was a proposed requirement that -- how's this for tough stuff? -- satellite registration offices be open at nights and weekends as long as possible, and a policy statement that a registrar's duty includes maintaining the rolls "at the highest possible level."

Even that last part didn't survive. It was dropped by a vote of 18 to 1. One of the arguments was that it might have been too much work for registrars. This, of course, is the heart of the time-honored voter-registration philosophy in Virginia: keep the registrars happy, keep the voters guessing and keep the rolls the way they've been kept.

In another action, the committee reported a proposed state constitutional amendment that would make some changes in registration, apparently safe in the assumption that the state senate will fiddle with it. Even if that doesn't happen, this proposal would have to be reapproved next year before it could be put to the voters. And what would this proposal permit? It would require the board of elections to notify voters about to be purged from the rolls and give them a chance to be registered.

Darn nice of them. The only other change in it would lift a ban on state employees' serving as assistant registrars. Virginia happens to be the only state with such a prohibition anyway.

What on earth are Virginia's elected officials afraid of?