Single Subject Rules

Updated May 8, 2009

Overview

Single subject rules require that an initiative address only one question or issue. Currently, the following 15 states require that initiatives address no more than one subject. Wide variation exists in how these states define "single subject" and how courts have interpreted the definitions.

Alaska (Alaska Stat. 15.45.040)
Arizona
California
(Const. Art. II, Sec. 8 (d))
Colorado (Const. Art. V, Sec. 1 (5.5) and CRS 1-40-106.5)
Florida (Const. Art. XI Sec. 3)
Missouri (Const. Art. III Sec. 50)
Montana
Nebraska (Const. Art. III sec. 2)

Nevada (N.R.S. 295.009)
Ohio (O.R.C. 3519.01)
Oklahoma
Oregon
(Const. Art. IV sec. 1 (2)(d))
Utah
Washington
Wyoming
(Wyo. Stat. 22-24-105 (a))

Single subject rules also are common in legislatures--41 states have constitutional provisions stipulating that bills may address only one subject, and several others have chamber rules for single-subject bills.

Pros and Cons

Single-subject rules benefit the initiative process because they make initiatives simpler and easier to understand. There is a danger in permitting a popular vote on a measure that addresses multiple, distinct subjects. How might a voter express his support of one subject but his rejection of another in such a situation? The lack of a single subject rule also leaves the door open to proponents who might try to make an unpopular idea more palatable by pairing it with a popular idea in a single initiative. In such cases, it is impossible to determine the majority's viewpoint on an issue.

There is also a down-side to the single-subject rule. A strictly enforced single-subject rule forces an initiative to address a very narrow subject, which can limit the scope of the context in which voters consider the measure. Also, single-subject challenges are a favorite avenue for slowing down the initiative process. The opponents of an initiative proposal will frequently challenge it on single-subject grounds, forcing proponents to spend valuable time and money fighting the challenge. Of course, sometimes these challenges are valid and succeed in striking a measure from the ballot or repealing an enacted measure.

For More Information

For more information on Initiative and Referendum, please contact Wendy Underhill.