National constitutions are supposed to provide a sustainable structure for politics, yet only half live more than 19 years. Zachary Elkins, associate professor of government and a leading constitutional scholar, knows what it takes for constitutions to last for generations — and now he’s teaming up with Google to share his expertise with drafters around the world.
With a grant from Google Ideas to The University of Texas at Austin, Elkins and his colleagues Tom Ginsburg (University of Chicago) and James Melton (University College London) created Constitute, a free online resource that offers a growing set of constitutional texts that users can compare systematically across a broad set of topics. The website launched Sept. 23 at the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
The website is built with data from the team’s Comparative Constitutions Project (CCP), a National Science Foundation-funded project that catalogs text and analysis from more than 900 current and historical constitutions since 1789. Currently, Constitute includes every constitution — more than 160 — that was in force in September 2013 for every independent state in the world. Soon it will include data and text for a version of every available constitution written since 1789.
And the constitutions are fully searchable, by year or country or using any number of nearly 350 curated topical tags (such as religion, elections, military or judicial review, just to name a few).
One goal of the project is to give citizens a chance to explore their own nation’s constitutions. But the primary aim is to assist those in countries revising or replacing their constitutions by giving them models of what’s been written before.
“A basic step in constitutional design is the search and analysis of different models,” Elkins explains. “Constitute allows drafters to explore a more representative set of options, more systematically, and in a clean and beautiful reading environment. This site will help drafters get their work done and could also lead to some intriguing discoveries by scholars and educators who analyze and explore the data.”
“Writing anything is difficult,” says Elkins in the video that Google published on YouTube (embedded above) to explain the project. “Writing a document that is supposed to be the framework and bulwark for democracy for generations is even harder. If Constitute can help that in even a marginal way, it will be a success.”
Constitute is also supported by IC² Institute at The University of Texas at Austin.