POLYAS Election Glossary

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


A constitution is a set of fundamental rules that determine how a country or state is run. Almost all constitutions are “codified”, which simply means they are written down clearly in a specific document called “the constitution”. However, some countries, such as Israel, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, have “un-codified” constitutions which can’t be found written down neatly in one particular place. Constitutions usually include the following basic elements:

  • A passionate introductory statement setting out the purpose of the constitution, known as a preamble.
  • A detailed description of how power is to be distributed between the three branches of government - the legislature, executive and judiciary - as well as between national and state levels of government
  • A guarantee of certain basic rights enjoyed by individual citizens of the country.

As constitutions include the most fundamental rules governing a society, it is generally more difficult for them to be amended than it is to pass ordinary pieces of legislation. For example in the US, passing constitutional amendments requires either a two-thirds majority of both houses of congress before being approved by three-quarters of the states. Alternatively, a constitutional convention can be called by two-thirds of US states which can propose amendments that will then need to be approved by three-quarters of the states. Both of these processes are much more difficult to complete than simply passing legislation through a majority of both houses of congress, reflecting the fundamental importance of rules set out in the constitution.

In contrast, the United Kingdom’s “un-codified” constitution vests ultimate authority in parliament to “make or unmake any law”, to quote A. V. Dicey, under the principle of parliamentary sovereignty. Since there is no written constitution of the United Kingdom, any law passed by parliament has the potential to be of constitutional significance, meaning the authority for altering the UK constitution ultimately lies with parliament.

Non-state bodies, such as companies, can also have constitutions which set out the purpose of the company as well as the ground rules by which it is to be run.

See also: Parliamentary Sovereignty, Law, Bylaws

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