Three Branches of Government: Legislative, Executive and Judicial
Since the late 18th century, many republics have separated governmental responsibilities into three branches, the legislative, executive and judicial.
The legislative branch (usually called a congress, parliament, or assembly), writes laws (including those that raise revenue) and appropriates funds for governmental departments and agencies. Some legislative branches have two chambers—for instance, the United States has a Senate in which states have equal representation, and a House of Representatives, whose members are apportioned according to each state’s population. Bills—proposed laws—need to pass through both chambers.
The executive (a president or prime minister on the national level, or governor on a state level, or mayor on a city level) administers and enforces the laws passed by the executive branch, while generally conducting foreign policy. They select members of their “cabinet,” usually with the approval of the legislative branch, who are called secretaries of departments (like in the U.S.) or ministers of ministries. These individuals run the agencies created by the legislatures to address various social and economic aspects of society. Foreign policy is mainly run through the chief executive and a foreign minister (the “Secretary of the State Department” in the U.S.). Local, state, and national executives enforce laws through the police and the operation of prisons, while national chief executives are often the commanders-in-chief of the armed forces.
The judicial branch is made up of the courts, who interpret the laws, determining whether or not a law has been broken. The highest court (for instance, the Supreme Court in the U.S.) decides whether or not particular laws are “constitutional,” following the foundational law of the country.
How Democracies Choose a Chief Executive
Democratic countries choose the chief executive through either a presidential, parliamentary, or presidential-parliamentary system.
The Presidential System
In the presidential system, citizen voters choose the chief executive (usually called a “president”). In addition to the executive powers described above, the president can also veto laws passed by the legislative branch, which then usually need a super-majority (like two-thirds of all members of each chamber), to pass the law “over” the presidential veto. This system originated in its modern form in the U.S. Constitution. It is also common in most Latin American countries.
The United States has its own indirect method of choosing a president, which is unique in the world: The Electoral College. Technically, in a presidential election, U.S. voters do not directly choose a presidential candidate, but instead vote for “electors” who are pledged to vote for a certain candidate. The number of electors for each state is the number of Senators (always two) plus the number of Representatives in the House of Representatives (which is allocated based on population). The least-populated states have a minimum of three electors (example: North and South Dakota); the most-populated state (California) has 55; Minnesota and Wisconsin each have ten; and Iowa has seven. Because of this system, it is mathematically possible for a candidate to win the popular vote and lose the electoral college vote—most recently, this happened in the 2000 and 2016 elections.
No matter how the president is chosen, the presidential system can result in the situation of a president from one political party and a legislative branch (Congress) led by another party. Because of this “divided government,” critics point out that it is difficult to legislate, while others claim that it is an important check on executive power. Recent examples in the U.S. include most of the Clinton presidency, the last two years of George W. Bush presidency, and most of the Obama administration. In the last two years of the Trump administration, the House of Representatives had a Democratic majority while President Trump was a Republican as were most members of the Senate.
Another potential check on executive power in the presidential system is the process of impeachment, in which the legislature can decide to remove a president from office for criminal activity.
The Parliamentary System
In a parliamentary system, citizens elect the members of the legislative branch (usually called a “parliament”), which then chooses the chief executive (usually called the “prime minister” but referred to as the “chancellor” in Germany). In most cases, the legislative branch has only one chamber instead of two.
The system originated in Great Britain and is common in many former British colonies (i.e. Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and Jamaica). Parliamentary systems sometimes include a monarch involved in the government, but usually as a figurehead who holds only symbolic power (i.e. Great Britain, Spain, Netherlands, and Sweden).
The Prime Minister is usually a member of the largest party, which means that legislation is more easily passed; it is impossible for the executive branch to be controlled by one party and the legislative branch controlled by another, as has occurred frequently in the U.S.
Parliament has the right to vote against a prime minister, which may force a new election. This especially happens in a multi-party system, where a Prime Minister needs the support of coalitions of several political parties: if one party decides to not support the Prime Minister, there are new elections.
Presidential-Parliamentary system: Two chief executives
In this system, voters elect both a president and a parliament; the parliament also chooses a prime minister.
The system is common in countries that previously had monarchs (Germany, France, Italy, Iraq, and India) but not always (Israel). Like most monarchs, the president in this case is frequently just a figurehead who only holds symbolic power, but not always (for instance, in France).
Sometimes the president plays a key role in multi-party democracies in which the president asks the head of a political party to form a government, usually in coalition with other parties. A historical example we discussed earlier was Germany’s Weimar Republic. This is how Hitler became chancellor. When a parliament votes against a prime minister, the president may ask some other party to form a government instead of calling for new elections.
Voting Systems in Democracies
There are several ways in which elections can be organized in democracies.
In this system, the candidate with the most votes wins, meaning they can win with a plurality rather than a majority of votes. It is common in most elections in the United States, especially in choosing members of Congress and in choosing presidential electors.
Winner-take-all usually results in a two-party system, as in the U.S., since voters feel that they are “wasting” their votes if they choose a third-party candidate. This often results in people voting against candidates they don’t want rather than for candidates they do. They reason that the candidate they actually prefer might take votes away from the “lesser-of-two-evils” candidate, resulting in a government that they really do not want.
Still, this voting system may result in candidates winning with less than a majority of the vote when there are more than three viable candidates (such as the U.S. presidential elections of 1992, 1996, 2000, and 2016; Minnesota Senate election of 2008; Minnesota elections for governor from 1998 through 2010). Some criticize this system since voters are limited in their choice of candidates; others argue that the additional system of “primary elections”—in which voters choose which candidate will represent a party in the “general election”—gives all voices a chance to be heard.
This system is only used in legislative elections. In proportional representation, voters choose a party; parties are assigned their number of seats in a legislature based on the percentage of votes that the party wins.
Fictional example: 100 seats in the Minnesota Senate, elected statewide by proportional representation
Democratic Party: 30%—30 seats
Republican Party: 35%—35 seats
Independence Party: 20%—20 seats
Green Party: 15%—15 seats
Proportional representation almost always results in a multi-party system, since voters do not feel that they are “wasting” a vote on a third party, since every party wins something (if they reach a certain percentage of total votes).
The system of choosing who will represent the party varies; it may occur before the elections (parties draw up an ordered list of potential representatives) or on the day of the election (voters choose both the party and the individual, so that vote tallies for individuals determine the order of potential representatives). In the fictional case described above, if the Republicans won 35% of the vote, the first 35 individuals on their list would win a seat in the legislature.
Combined with a parliamentary or a presidential-parliamentary system of government, a multi-party situation frequently means that a prime minister is chosen as part of a coalition of parties, if no party has a clear majority in the legislature. This is the current situation in Germany, Italy, and Israel.
Fifty Percent Plus One
Candidates in this system must win at least a simple majority of votes (fifty percent plus one); if this does not happen, the top two vote-winners compete in a second (run-off) election.
This system is common in choosing presidents in both the presidential and presidential-parliamentary systems (an important exception is the U.S.). It encourages a multi-party situation, while preventing a candidate from being elected with only a small plurality. This system is used in some Congressional elections in the U.S. (Texas currently has this system). Historical example: Electing the President in the Weimar Republic.
Ranked Choice Voting
A variation of the “fifty percent plus one” system is called Instant Run-Off Voting (IRV), where voters rank their first choice, then their second choice, and then their third choice. If no candidate receives more than 50% as a first choice, the next count is limited to the top two vote-getters, with the second-choice votes cast by those whose first choice lost added to the top two vote-getters. This system is currently being used in the Twin Cities in elections for city council and mayor.