American voters, the polls said, weren't too happy with the presidential choice between George Bush and Michael Dukakis. Turnout plunged to its lowest point in years in this month's balloting.

Does this mean the time has come for a third party, for a new political force to replace the faltering machinery of one of the major parties?Third-party presidential hopefuls led by Ron Paul of the Libertarian Party and Lenora Fulani from the New Alliance Party made the case for major political change throughout the campaign.

But the voters didn't much care for the choices that Paul, Fulani and more than a dozen other minor party candidates offered on Nov. 8 either - a sign that prospects remain dim for a major new party to emerge in this country.

Bush won about 48.1 million votes in defeating Dukakis, who received about 41.1 million votes. That means only about half of the adults in this country bothered to vote.

But those numbers do add up to 99.1 percent of all the votes cast in the presidential race.

Paul, the former Republican congressman from Texas, got about 410,000 votes across the country. That figures out to only about 0.45 percent of the more than 90 million votes cast.

Fulani was second among the second-rank candidates, drawing about 200,000 votes for about 0.22 percent of the vote. Her share of the vote will probably rise slightly when final, official numbers come in from her hometown, New York City.

Then came such figures as former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, who got about 44,000 votes running under such labels as Populist. Onetime Democratic candidate Eugene McCarthy received about 30,000 votes in several states as the Consumer Party nominee. Extremist Lyndon LaRouche, whose trial on various charges began this week, got 23,000 votes.

Then there was Prohibition Party candidate Earl F. Dodge with almost 8,000 votes.

Taken all together, this was a bit better than their showing in 1984, when third-party candidates got about 0.7 percent of the vote in the race featuring President Reagan and former Vice President Walter Mondale.

Paul's showing was better than the 1984 tallies for Libertarian David Bergland, who he received about a quarter of one percent of the total.

But that is just trying to put the best light on bad returns. None of these candidates came even close to the showing of George Wallace in 1968 or John Anderson in 1980.

The voters, faced by a choice they weren't happy with, did not cast their ballots for any of the 18 or so minor party candidates whose names were listed in this state or that.

The other signs for third parties also are not too good.

Even Richard Viguerie, the direct-mail guru, admits his oft-voiced hopes for a conservative third party just aren't realistic.

"What we'll do is go out there and put together a third force," he said this week as he expressed displeasure with Bush and what is becoming a mostly moderate administration-to-be.

Does this mean a third party?

"Oh no, no, no, no. Just a third force. The left operates in the third-force arena with labor unions, with civil rights organizations, with their own agenda, separate and apart from the Democrats. That's what I think conservatives should be doing."

Minor parties haven't become major parties in this country for more than 100 years, and the reasons are many.

Most Americans still grow up with some kind of partisan identity as Democrats or Republicans, even though independent is now a label many display even as they back the major parties' candidates with remarkable consistency.

The nation's election laws, written largely by major party legislators, make that which is easy for major-party candidates - getting on the ballot, for example - very hard for third-party candidates. Witness that only Fulani was able to get on the ballot in all 50 states for Nov. 8 as a third-party hopeful.

Raising money for third parties is tough, while the major party candidates can even tap the federal treasury for presidential elections.

For all their problems, the Democratic and Republican parties remain the only serious choices available in most elections and probably will be so for years to come.

Even when faced with a clear chance to just vote "No," the voters declined to pull that lever. "None of These Candidates" got only about 2 percent of the vote in Nevada when running against Bush and Dukakis this year.