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Division of Power

Key Takeaways

  1. Dividing the power of government among separate branches prevents any one branch from gaining excessive authority and safeguards people’s rights.
  2. Most democracies divide power by the creation, enforcement, and interpretation of laws among separate branches of government, typically the executive, legislative, and executive branches.
  3. While division of power protects citizens’ individual freedoms, a divided system can limit governmental efficiency.

Division of Power in a Democracy

Democratic constitutions typically divide  power among multiple branches of government.  Most democracies use three branches: the executive to enforce law, the legislative to make law, and the judiciary to interpret the law.  Each branch has its own set of core functions, responsibilities, and allocations of authority that check the power of the other branches.  These are often referred to as ‘checks and balances’ on governmental power and aim to prevent any one branch of government from acquiring the authority to infringe on the rights and will of the people in a democracy. For instance, in the United States, the executive branch cannot enforce a law that goes against Congress’s intent, and an independent judiciary can nullify such actions by the executive. Similarly, the judiciary can invalidate or penalize actions that violate individual rights protected by written laws. The executive branch is also subject to checks, including the legislature’s power to override presidential decisions and the judiciary’s authority to declare laws unconstitutional. Judges in the judiciary are nominated by the executive but require confirmation through hearings led by the legislature.

The Branches of Government

In a democracy, power distribution between branches arises from unique laws and norms that typically is divided between the executive, judicial, and legislative branches of government.  

Executive: The executive branch typically consists of many different administrative agencies that enforce and implement  the laws made by the legislative branch. These agencies are often referred to as part of the bureaucracy. For example, in the United States the Internal Revenue Service collects federal taxes enacted by Congress, and in the United Kingdom Parliament creates healthcare policies that the National Health Service must implement. The head executive office can take many forms.The executive leader often takes office through free elections, although these electoral processes differ between countries. The executive wields authority defined by a constitution or rooted in societal norms and historical traditions. In a presidential system a popularly-elected president serves independently of the legislature, while the executive in parliamentary systems derive their power from the legislature.

Legislative: The legislative power in a democracy consists of bodies of elected officials who deliberate on and pass laws. Legislatures often exist in two forms: unicameral and bicameral. In unicameral legislatures, all members vote as a single group or “house.” Bicameral systems divide legislative power into two separate voting bodies that serve as an intra-branch check on the legislative power.

Judicial: The judicial branch resolves legal disputes that arise under enacted or enforced laws.  An independent judiciary ensures fairness in resolving legal disputes.  Its authority and legitimacy rely on staying separate from political influences, which can affect the legislative and executive branches.


The division of powers through independent branches of government can prevent abuses of power and safeguard individual rights, preserving effective democratic governance. However, divided governments often deliver change in a slow and sometimes tedious manner. These protective measures promote accountability, but act as a barrier to achieving progress and to responding swiftly in times of crisis.