Suppose someone came up with a way to hold a "no confidence" vote on American elections. Would it fly?

Somebody has. And it did.

Oklahoma's passage last week of the nation's first term limitation measure for state legislators was more than a complaint against incumbents. It was an expression of declining faith in elections themselves.

"Term limitations are the Gramm-Rudman of American politics," noted Fred Wertheimer, president of Common Cause. "Our elections have become so uncompetitive that voters no longer see the ballot box as a place where their concerns can be addressed. So they're saying, 'If we can't do this ourselves, let's create some automatic process that does it for us.' "

In an age of incumbent reelection rates of 98 percent in the House and more than 80 percent in state legislatures, it's no surprise that populist frustration at entrenched incumbency has stirred a grass-roots effort to change the rules.

There are two ironies, however. One is that in the name of making the political system more responsive, voters are prepared to embrace a remedy that curbs their freedom to vote for whomever they want. Another is that the chief promoters of term limits are conservative Republicans, who normally balk at regulation of the electoral or any other marketplace.

"I am not known for changing my mind, but this is one issue where I have changed my mind 180 degrees -- because our politics have changed," said Paul Weyrich, head of the Free Congress Foundation, a conservative group that is promoting term limits. "With the franking privileges, the big staffs, the media exposure and the PAC contributions, incumbents at the state and federal level are able to wire their reelections."

Weyrich noted that the 36 consecutive years of Democratic control of the House helped change his mind, and he placed the odds at "about 40 percent" that passage of a wave of state legislative term limit referenda in the next two years would force similar action in Congress.

Other conservatives are less optimistic. "Members of Congress never do anything that affects their ability to stay in office," said Edward J. Rollins, head of the National Republican Congressional Committee. "A decade from now, we'll still be discussing this."

In the interim, the courts may get into the act. Two more states, California and Colorado, will have term limitation referenda on the ballot this November, and Colorado's would affect members of Congress as well as state legislators. If it passes, it's sure to trigger a constitutional test over who has the right to set the conditions of election to Congress -- the federal government or the states.

The political genius of term limit measures -- and the reason most analysts think they will be difficult to stop in states that have an initiative process -- is that they allow people to vote against an institution rather than an individual. All of the advantages of incumbency are thus neutralized.

"This is an issue that most incumbent elected officials oppose but they aren't anxious to get out front on, because it sounds so self-serving," said John Perkins, political director for the AFL-CIO, which spent about $35,000 in Oklahoma trying to defeat the 12-year term limit measure there that passed by a 2 to 1 ratio.

In California, Speaker of the House Willie Brown (D) has said he will raise up to $4 million to campaign against term limits on three grounds: That they give more power to unelected bureaucrats; that they force quality men and women out of office before their time, and that they restrict voters' right to choose.

Weyrich disputes all three points. "Bureaucrats get along famously with veteran legislators," he said. "Yes, we'll lose some good people, but that will be more than offset by the advantage of fresh thinking. . . . It's unfortunate, but we've come to the point that people feel they have to limit their freedom a little bit in order get the greater freedom that comes from competitive elections."

Twenty-eight states currently limit the terms of governors, but since the Articles of Confederation none except Oklahoma has enacted limits on the terms of legislators. "The theory has always been that there's a danger of one person accumulating too much power in the executive branch which doesn't exist in the legislative branch, because of diffusion of power and constant turnout," said Thomas Mann, a political scientist at the Brookings Institution.

Mann predicted that the pressure behind the burgeoning term limit movement will "dissipate" in 1992, when the combination of redistricting and new rules regarding conversion of campaign funds to personal use at the time lawmakers retire is expected to create the largest number of open seats in the House in modern history. "We may have 100 new faces in Congress in 1993 -- and I'm not sure the term limitation movement can survive that," he said.