ON NOV. 2, a quarter of the American public will be asked to vote on whether the United States should negotiate a nuclear freeze with the Soviet Union. Even where the freeze is not on the ballot, congressmen have been asked to declare their support. Unfortunately, they are being asked the wrong question.

There is a better option than the freeze idea -- simpler, safer and much more likely to succeed.

The notion of a freeze is popular; opinion polls show about 70 percent of the public favors it. Now that the superpowers have deployed 22,000 long-range and medium-range warheads, the public correctly feels that "enough is enough."

But the polls also show that a large majority of voters would oppose a freeze if they felt it would give the Soviets greater nuclear strength than the United States, or would enable them to cheat undetected. In other words, the wrong sort of freeze would quickly loose public support.

The great virtue of the freeze movement has been its revival of public support for the complex subject of nuclear arms control by suggesting an apparently simple first step. Unfortunately, the freeze proposal that nearly passed the House last summer and that will appear on most ballots next month is not a simple proposition.

It calls for a mutual and verifiable ban on the production, testing and deployment of all nuclear weapons and their delivery systems. Yet it would be nearly impossible to detect Soviet cheating in the production of nuclear materials. Even some tests are hard to detect. Public acceptance requires that a freeze be mutual and verifiable, but by attaching those two conditions to the ambitious list of objectives that negotiations for a freeze would have to accomplish, the freeze idea is no longer a plausible quick step. Simpler SALT agreements took years to negotiate.

Moreover, even those who disagree with President Reagan and believe the two superpowers have roughly equal arsenals can see some serious problems in the current national freeze proposal. Basically, the freeze proposal tries to take too big a bite at one time. What is to be frozen?

Should we freeze certain delivery systems if we cannot freeze their countermeasures? For example, should we prohibit new and quieter submarines like Trident or radar-deceiving Stealth aircraft if we cannot verifiably freeze Soviet antisubmarine warfare or air defenses? Conceivably, such a freeze could allow one side to develop countermeasures that might neutralize the weapons systems being frozen. If either side gets the impression it has neutralized important parts of the other's nuclear forces, that could create new temptations to strike first in a crisis.

Crisis stability -- confidence that neither side will be tempted to strike first -- is a key arms control objective. Stopping all technological change does not necessarily enhance crisis stability. For example, a freeze in 1959 that would have stopped deployment of our invulnerable Polaris submarine-based missiles would have made the 1960s less safe. On the other hand, a freeze in 1969 might have avoided the instability that was caused by the introduction of multiple, independently targeted re-entry vehicles (MIRVs) in the 1970s. It is the existence of MIRVs that produced the theoretical possibility of a successful Soviet strike against all American land-based missiles -- the so-called "window of vulnerability" that may give us a new and more dangerous round in the arms race.

A freeze now would stop some threatening systems like the MX missile, but would also block new technology that could actually make the world safer, like Stealth aircraft and new submarines.

One long-range hope for increased stability -- a new small, single-warhead, land-based missile that may be the best way to remedy the problems created by MIRVs -- would be precluded by a freeze.

Negotiations for a verifiable freeze would inevitably be slow and complex. Even if they succeeded, they would produce an agreement that critics (in the Senate, say) would find easy to attack and perhaps to block. Why not spend that time and political capital instead on negotiating for much simpler goals -- stabilizing measures and force reductions?

Why not seek a more modest but still important objective? We could freeze the number of strategic warheads deployed on both sides and require that any warheads added to the arsenals would be compensated by at least an equal number withdrawn. It would probably be impossible to verify a freeze that included shortrange battlefield nuclear weapons, but we could adequately verify the number of warheads on missiles and bombers with ranges over 1,000 miles -- roughly 11,000 on each side.

This modest proposal is more consistent with the simplicity that is the great virtue of the freeze idea. It leads to a simple list of what is to be frozen (warheads); it might be quickly negotiated; and it is verifiable by the existing SALT rules and procedures currently being observed by both sides. It avoids the potentially dangerous approach of freezing the modernization of certain forces while letting their countermeasures run free. Moreover, it leads quickly to more complex arms control negotiation without reducing Soviet incentives to bargain by eliminating (as the national freeze proposal does) U.S. modernization programs that should worry the Soviets most.

The freeze movement has already performed a great service by reinvigorating the search for nuclear arms control. But the idea should be simplified before the public is disillusioned. A comprehensive, verifiable freeze just can't be accomplished quickly enough to satisfy the strong new public sentiment for action. Freezing strategic warheads is a better alternative.

Some of this year's pro-freeze ballot initiatives -- in Massachusetts and the District of Columbia, for example -- are broad enough to encompass this new idea, and moderates should not hesitate to vote for them. Others, like California's, are too closely tied to the national freeze proposal that is likely to bring more disillusionment than arms control.