ONE OF THE disappointments political activists sympathetic to Ronald Reagan sustained in Tuesday's election was the response to several key ballot measures in various states. Ever since California voters surprised almost everyone, including themselves, by cutting property taxes in approving Howard Jarvis' Proposition 13 in June 1978, many who describe themselves as conservatives have seen the ballot measure as the best means to get some of their favorite policies adopted. Legislatures, they maintain, have an inherently pro-government, pro-tax, pro-status-quo bias; they are overly responsive to the laments of lobbyists, liberal and otherwise, and insufficiently attentive to the wishes of the public. They insulate themselves from popular retribution by drawing district lines so as to keep incumbents, or at least those who go along, in office perpetually.

Those who hold to this view have had some signal successes since 1978. They have stimulated spending cuts and tax cuts in such bastions of big government as Massachusetts and Michigan. Their initial successes in California and elsewhere stimulated public officials to adopt at least part of their agenda, if only out of fear.

But there are limits, apparently, to the extent to which conservative goals can be sought through the populist means of initiative and referendum. On Tuesday the same California voters who voted resoundingly for the fourth time for Ronald Reagan also rejected both Howard Jarvis' latest tax-cutting proposal and a measure backed by Gov. George Deukmejian to take the power to redistrict away from the Democratic legislature. In Michigan another tax-cutting measure was defeated. So was one in Nevada and apparently -- the returns are close -- in Oregon.

Intricacies of word and local factors may explain many of these results, and the results were not all on one political side. Maine, like New York and Iowa in years past, rejected a state equal rights amendment. Colorado passed and Washington state rejected a measure barring state financing of abortions. One thing, however, is apparent: the pattern conservatives hoped for -- an outraged electorate using the ballot to take control of its government -- has not prevailed universally. Before the election, Republican backers of some of these proposals suggested one reason why: our voters, they said, tend to vote "No" on any measure until they've been given strong assurance that they should vote "Yes." There may be, in other words, a kind of institutional conservatism on the part of many voters, an unwillingness to endorse technical language that may enforce they know not what, an inclination to leave such things where some argue they should have been left all along -- in he legislatures.