American voters picked and chose among ballot issues as well as candidates this week as the recent growth of ''direct democracy'' tactics continued in a surge of initiatives and referendums - far over 200 statewide questions plus thousands in lesser jurisdictions.
One national issue - a bilateral and verifiable nuclear freeze - was notable for making progress in terms of both ballots and candidates. Despite election-eve exhortations against it by the Reagan administration, the freeze won in eight out of nine statewide ballots as well as in the District of Columbia and many cities and counties (with the exception of two in rural Arkansas). And CBS pollsters found that 55 percent of the members in the new House of Representatives favor the freeze in contrast with 49 percent of the incumbents.
If the latter figures are borne out, they could be of more immediate significance than the nonbinding measures approved on the state and local levels. For a House majority would presumably make possible a new vote on recommending the freeze - and a reversal of this year's narrow (204-202) defeat of such a resolution.
However, the display of voter sentiment in states scattered from Massachusetts to Montana and California could at least spur a movement that had appeared to pass its peak. With the elections over, the focus returns to the possibilities of teach-ins, rallies, and other means of keeping up momentum for the freeze or other arms control efforts.
For, whether or not Americans support the freeze itself, they all have a stake in checking the arms race by some means. As one who opposes the freeze option, President Reagan must feel the urgency of pressing forward with the nuclear arms control negotiations he does support. The important thing for individuals is not to let up on the goal whatever the particular approach they favor.
Certainly, on others of the many ballot issues, Americans have shown the abovemen-tioned tendency to pick and choose without collapsing into disunity. For instance, as a group, various tax measures occupied even more ballots than the freeze. And they were not all for tax cuts. Among proposed tax increases, voters evidently looked at both means and ends. Ohio voters, for example, rejected a tax increase for high-speed transportation; Missouri voters approved a tax increase to benefit education.
Washington rejected a ''bottle bill'' banning no-deposit containers. Massachusetts confirmed one. Massachusetts voters also came up with some kind of anomaly, voting for a return to capital punishment and also for a governor who vows to veto any death-penalty bill.
On another issue with national echoes, California rejected a strong handgun registration measure under an expensive campaign onslaught by the gun lobby.
Situations around the country point up the possible pitfalls of ''direct democracy.'' It is, of course, a valuable guarantee that aroused citizens have a last recourse to the ballot when they believe they cannot get sufficient hearing through their representatives. Yet the initiatives and referendums can be diversionary, can be used by cynical manipulators as well as sincere advocates. They can provide telling evidence of voter concerns, but they should not be allowed to undercut the representative system on which America's main political work depends.