POLYAS Election Glossary

We provide explanations and background information on elections, voting rights and digital democracy

Branches of Government

The governance of states is often broken down into three distinct branches: the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government. Organizing the system of government into branches is known as the “separation of powers” and was first described in its modern form by 18th century French philosopher Baron de Montesquieu.

The idea behind separating governmental powers into three branches is to prevent an undemocratic concentration of power through a system of “checks and balances”. Such a system aims to ensure that each branch of government acts within the limits of its powers as set out in the country’s constitution.

The United States Constitution is a clear example of the separation of powers in practice. The following persons and institutions represent each branch of government in the United States:

  • Executive - the President, Vice President, Cabinet and governmental departments such as the Department of Education
  • Legislative - Congress, both the House of Representatives and the Senate
  • Judicial - the court system headed by the Supreme Court of the United States.

In other countries the separation of powers is not as pronounced as it is in the United States. For instance in the UK, whilst the judicial branch is completely separate from the legislative and executive, the latter two branches are somewhat fused. This is the case because the Prime Minister and Cabinet, who make up the executive branch along with their respective departments, also sit in Parliament - the legislative branch.

See also: The Legislature, Executive Branch, The Judiciary, Constitution

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