It is a practice before and after Independence and continued todate, to establish departments, ministries, other state entities and statutory institutions for the purpose of running the functions and general services of the public sector. The commencement of the Department of Elections was yet another event in the same practice . The key objectives of the establishment of the Department of Elections were to administer electoral procedures and to carry out its management functions. In other words the key responsibility of the Department was to carry out statutory an non-statutory functions including the conducting of free and fair elections and the preparation of the Annual Voters Register.
The Department of Elections was established on the 1st of October, 1955. However, it was not one single event. A study of the situation prior to the establishment of the Department will be of importance in gaining knowledge on its historical development.
The origins of representative democracy in Sri Lanka runs back to the 19th Century. Although no wide practice of elections could be observed at that time, a fraction of the people in the country had received the opportunity of casting vote for the first time at an election held for the purpose of electing members to the Colombo Municipal Council under the Ordinance No. 17 of 1865. Election of people's representatives to the legislature was initiated under the Crewe McCallum Reforms 1911 to elect four representatives by vote. That was when the number of members of the Legislative Council increased to 21 representatives under the Crewe McCallum Reforms introduced in 1910 the Legislative Council consisted of 11 non-official and 10 official members. Four of the non-official members were appointed by limited franchise conducted in 1911 i.e. 2 Europeans (rural and urban), 1 Burgher and 1 Ceylonese.
The Legislative Council initially established in 1833 under the Colebrooke Reforms consisted of 15 members i.e 9 official and 6 non-official, but there were no elected members. The six non-official members appointed by the Governor were 3 Europeans, 1 Sinhalese, 1 Tamil and 1 Burgher.
The Legislative Council established in 1920 under Manning Devonshire Reforms consisted of 37 members i.e. 14 official and 23 non-official members. Five (5) non-official members were appointed by vote on electorate basis.
Forty nine (49) members were appointed to the Legislative Council established in 1924 under the Orders in Council 1923. It consisted of 12 official and 37 non-official members. 23 out of the non-official members were elected by area based election.
According to the above information, 3 elections have been conducted during the period 1910-1930 and three constitutional reforms have made provisions for conducting such elections. They were,
1. Legislative Council Ordinance 1910
2. Ceylon (Legislative Council) Order in Council 1920
3. Ceylon (Legislative Council) Order in Council 1923
Members were elected at these elections in the order of the number of votes obtained.
No demarcation of electorates was carried out by a Delimitation Commission for electing members. Following criteria were employed for the purpose of election. Neither the area of land nor the amount of population have been taken into account in these elections.
1. Using administrative land units
Eg. - Provinces or revenue districts
2. Demarcation based on community groups
Eg. - European (Rural), European (Urban), Burgher etc.
3. Sinhala and Tamil divisions (subsequently)
4. Employment or profession
Eg. - Members of the Chamber of Commerce/ Members of Manufacturing Companies etc.
Various factors have been taken into account as bases and qualifications of voters during this period as follows;
1. Division of electorates was on ethnic basis.
2. Knowledge in the English language as a qualification.
3. Residence for a one year period before 1st June of the year and a continuous residence of 6 months out of the said one year period.
4. Annual income of Rs. 600/- and possession of an asset/immovable property worth Rs. 1500/-.
Qualifications as well as disqualifications for voters were specified. Accordingly, the males below 21 years of age, all females, persons of unsound mind or having served a prison term or subject to death penalty etc. did not get franchise.
Qualifications to be Candidates
It was not sufficient that candidates were registered as voters. One should not carry any disqualification to be a candidate and they should have a period of residence of 3 years in the area. They should not be having served a prison term of over 3 years. Being below 25 years of age, being employed in public service or dismissed from public service etc. were the disqualifications. The level of income had also been considered under Section 13(2) of 1920 Ordinance.
Voter's Registers were prepared.. Registration officers were appointed by the Governor, the highest administrator of the country. The Registration officers prepared the Voters Register. Persons holding posts such as Government Agents, Assistant Government Agents, and Revenue Officers were appointed as Registration officers.
All these matters were administered and managed under the orders of the Governor. He made arrangements to select and appoint the staff such as Returning Officers and Polling Officers. Registration officers enumerated the voters. Returning Officers carried out all activities such as the poll and the announcement of results. In addition, provisions had been made on election offences and corruption and this was an important feature in the election process.
The State Council was established as per 1931 Ceylon (State Council) Order in Council under Donoughmore Constitution. Action was taken to follow provisions in the 1931 Ceylon (State Council) Order in Council to appoint members to the State Council. Two Elections were conducted in 1931 and 1936. The next election was not conducted due to the Second World War. Therefore, the term of office of the Second State Council had to be extended and continued for a period of 11 years. The Governor appointed a Delimitation Commission in 1930 and the Commission demarcated 50 constituencies based on provinces. It was designed to appoint one member each for a population of 100,000 - 125,000. The 50 constituencies were,
|North Central Province||-||01|
|North Western Province||-||05|
Under the Donoughmore Reforms voters register was prepared by the Registering Officer appointed by the Governor. Franchise was offered to both males and females over 21 years of age. Universal franchise is identified as the free right exercised by every citizen over the specified age limit, not subject to legal disqualifications. The legislations required for this purpose and for a new electoral process and management were newly introduced. Operation of electoral process was conducted as before by the Returning Officers under the instructions and orders of the Governor.
Party symbols were not used on ballot papers at the elections conducted in 1931 and 1936. The use of ballot boxes in different colours for each candidate and the voter getting the opportunity to cast his vote for the candidate of his choice by inserting the ballot into the box of the candidate were the special characteristics of this election. This was a sound alternative to the question of iliteracy of the vast number of voters newly added after granting franchise to everybody over 21 years of age without considering education as a qualification to cast vote.
The Department of Elections was established and a Commissioner was appointed to conduct the Parliamentary Election, 1947 after the enactment of the 1946 Ceylon (Parliamentary Elections) Order in Council. The Local Authorities Ordinance 1946 was enacted and the Local Authorities Elections Department was established under another Commissioner for Local Authorities Election. Members of Parliament and Members of Local Authorities were elected from 1947 to 1955, by the two departments. The first Parliamentary Election 1947 and the second Parliamentary Election 1952 were conducted by the Department of Parliamentary Elections. Local Authority Elections were conducted by the Department of Local Authorities Elections.
Department of Elections was established on the 1st October, 1955 amalgamating the Department of Parliamentary Elections and Department of Local Authorities Elections. It was headed by the Commissioner of Elections.
The vision and responsibility of the Department of Elections to conduct free and fair elections and referendums and to prepare voters register required for the purpose in order to protect people's sovereignty and democracy. The Commissioner and the Department of Elections have been particularly vested with independence which was not observed in any other government entity from the days of the inception.
The independence of the Department of Election has been preserved by not placing it under the purview of any ministry, by not appointing or removing officers in the department without the consent of the Commissioner of Elections, by making provisions for the Commissioner to operate independently and by not influencing the department in any manner. The Commissioner of Elections is responsible only to the Judiciary. These are the characteristics of the department that exhibit independence in its operations vis a vis other state departments.
The principal duty of the Department of Elections is to take measures necessary to preserve franchise of citizens by conducting free and fair elections, registration of all qualified citizens annually in the electoral register as voters and prevention of entering names of disqualified persons.
Another key responsibility of the Department is to conduct Presidential and Parliamentary Elections, referendums when the will of the people should be directly taken and conduct Local Authorities Elections as specified by the Constitution in a free, fair and trustworthy manner.
The role of the Department of Elections may be summarized as follows.
(a) To prepare and certify the Annual Register of Voters
(b) At national level to conduct
1. Presidential Elections
2. Parliamentary General Elections and
(c) At provincial and local levels to conduct
1. Provincial Council Elections, and
2. Municipal Council, Urban Council and Pradeshiya Sabha Elections.
Legal provisions have been made to conduct all these elections by special Acts passed for each type of elections in addition to the provisions made by the Constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. They are as follows.
V. Pradeshiya Sabha Act of 1980
VI. Local Authorities Elections Act No. 2 of 1988
VII. The Registration of Electors Act No. 44 of 1980 facilitated all the elections by registering qualified voters.
In addition to the above Acts, elections for the 24 Development Councils established with the Gazette notification under the Development Councils Act No. 35 of 1980, were held on 04.06.1981.
Above Acts have granted statutory authority for the operation of electoral procedures pertaining to relevant elections. The entire administration and management thereunder inclusive of accepting nominations, operation of electoral procedures and the control of election offences and unlawful acts are pursued under the direction of the Commissioner of Elections.
Legal provisions existed during the time of the establishment of the Department of Elections in year 1955, to conduct elections and methodologies and administrative procedures followed in conducting such elections have changed from time to time. It is appropriate to note such changes together with the terms of offices of Commissioners who have served the Department of Elections. Six (6) Commissioners of Elections had been in office before the establishment of the Elections Commission
Mr. A. Arulpragasam - 1955.10.01 – 1957.03.06
Mr. A. Arulpragasam was the first Commissioner appointed to the Department of Elections. He held office as the Commissioner of Local Authorities Elections before the appointment to this office. The third Parliamentary Election in Sri Lanka was held during his period of office. Following are the notable events that took place during his period,
1. Parliamentary Election, 1956 - This Election was held for three days.
2. The system of signing and submission of the BC Form by the householder commenced.
3. As important change took place with regard to the voters register. The register prepared in the alphabetical order was changed to the order of household numbers
Mr. E.F. Dias Abeysinghe - 1957.03.07 – 1978.03.15
Mr. E.F. Dias Abeysinghe was appointed to the office of the Commissioner of Elections on 07-03-1957. The vacancy was created due to the retirement of Mr. Arulpragasam. Mr. Abeysinghe, who functioned on at the Commissioner for a long period, retired on 15-03-1978. This is a period of many notable changes in the Department of Elections. It was a period of introducing special laws and new features to the elections.
It is a singular feature that the functions of the Department of Elections gradually developed from its commencement. Accordingly, it is observed that he, as the Head of the Institution, worked for preparation of the legal foundation required and regularization of election management.
01. Initiation of the change of conducting Parliamentary Elections to a one day exercise. (1960 March election)
The first Parliamentary Election conducted in the year 1947 was held for 19 days. The second Parliamentary Election in 1952 was concluded in 4 days while the third Parliamentary Election 1956 was held for 3 days. Accordingly, the initiation of the conduct the election on a single day is a significant change. All Parliamentary Elections and Referendums conducted from March, 1960 todate have been conducted as one day operations.
02. Registration of political parties and introduction of the system of recognizing political parties.
03. Dispatching official poll cards to electors. Information of the date of election, polling station, registered serial number and the period for casting vote etc were notified to the elector by these poll cards.
04. Providing opportunity for persons engaged in essential duties to cast postal vote.
05. Conducting five General Elections and a number of Local Authorities Elections from 1960 upto 1977.
06. Introduction of the 1972 Republic Constitution of Sri Lanka, changes such as the appointment of a nominal President in place of the Governor General, establishment of the National State Assembly in place of Parliament, abrogation of the Upper House and changes in the Department of Elections in keeping with such developments were introduced during this period. The period of office of the National State Assembly was 6 years.
Mr. M. A. Piyasekera - 1978.03.16 – 1982.01.31
Having served as an Assistant Commissioner of Elections and Deputy Commissioner of Elections, Mr. M.A. Piyasekera was appointed to the post of Commissioner of Elections on 16-03-1978. Significant among the changes that took place in the Department of Elections during this period were,
1. Passing the 1978 Constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka and the introduction of new systems of elections thereunder such as the Presidential Election and Referendum.
2. Introduction of a new system of marking vote to the Party while marking preference to candidates.
3. Establishment of a new category of Local Authorities by passage of the Development Councils Act no. 35 of 1980.
After the retirement of Mr. Piyasekera two Acting Commissioners of Elections were appointed for a very short period i.e. Mr. L.A.G. Jayasekera, the Deputy Commissioner of Elections, from 10-02-1982 to 24-03-1982 and Mr. S.L. Marikkar, an Additional Secretary to the President, from 25-03-1982 to 03-05-1982.
Mr. R.K. Chandrananda de Silva - 1982.05.04 – 1995.02.18
Mr. R.K. Chandrananda de Silva was appointed to the post of Commissioner of Elections on 04-05-1982. Before the appointment to the office, he had served as an Assistant Commissioner in the Department of Elections.
This was a very busy period for the Department of Elections. Various problems arose in conducting elections because the country was passing an era of political crises and violence.
With the construction of a new Elections Secretariat during this period the Department could be relieved of renting office space. Important events of this period were as follows,
1. The first Referendum (under the Referendum Act)
2. Passing Pradeshiya Sabha Act no. 15 of 1987 and passage of Pradeshiya Sabha Elections Law.
3. Passing the Provincial Councils Act No. 42 of 1987 and conducting the first Provincial Councils Election under the Provincial Councils Elections Act No. 2 of 1988. Preferential system was introduced with the Provincial Councils Election.
4. The first Presidential Election (Under the Presidential Election Act).
5. Passing the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution and the conduct of the Provincial Councils Election under to the Amendment.
6. Parliamentary Election, 1988. This Election was conducted under the system of Proportional Representation and Preferential system.
7. The second Provincial Councils Election.
8. The Second Presidential Election.
9.Parliamentary Election 1994
Mr. Dayananda Dissanayake - 1995.02.18 – 2011.03.26
Mr. Dayananda Dissanayake was the Deputy Commissioner of Elections appointed to the office of Commissioner of Elections on 18-02-1995.
During this period a large number of elections were held i.e. Parliamentary Elections 2000 and 2004, Presidential Elections 2005 and 2010 and Provincial Councils and Local Authorities Elections.
Legal provisions were made to establish an Elections Commission in place of the Department of Elections by the 17th Amendment to the Constitution. The Constitution made provisions to establish a Commission consisting of 5 members.
Since it was mandatory to hold office until the Election Commission was established, he as the incumbent Commissioner had to remain in office for a long period. This legal requirement was removed by the 18th Amendment to the Constitution.
Mr. Mahinda Deshapriya - 2011.03.26- 2015.11.16
Mr. Mahinda Deshapriya was appointed as the sixth Commissioner of Elections on 26-03-2011. Having served in the posts of Assistant Commissioner of Elections, Deputy Commissioner of Elections and Additional Commissioner of Elections from 1983, he was a person having a long record of service in the Department. Further, Mr. Mahinda Deshapriya was the last Commissioner of the Department.
Number of new features and special functions were added to the role of the Department of Elections during this period.
1. Minimizing election offences and unlawful acts by active employment of the Police in relevant duties during the periods of election.
2. Finalizing the revision of the Electoral Register (Voters Register) and certification in 6 months which took a period of one year in the past.
3. National and district level operation of a new unit for investigating election complaints.
4. Declaring 1st June as the "Voters' Day".
5. All island operation of voter awareness programmes.
6. Sri Lanka receiving the Chairmanship of the Forum of Election Management Bodies of South Asia (FEMBOSA)
7. Conducting the 60th Anniversary of the Department of Elections.
8. A vast number of Elections i.e. Presidential Elections, Parliamentary Elections, Provincial Councils and Local Authorities Elections were conducted during his period as the Commissioner.
9. It is during this period that new legislations were formulated to set up Elections Commission by 19th Amendment to the Constitution. On the 13th November, 2015, the President appointed the Chairman and two members for the Elections Commission accordingly. With the assumption of duties by the members of the Elections Commission on 17th November, 2015, the Commission was established and the Department of Elections ceased to exist at the age of sixty.
Attorney – at – Law Nimal G. Punchihewa - Chairman, Election Commission
He graduated with a Bachelor of Laws degree from the University of Colombo in 1976 and sworn in as an Attorney – at – Law in the Supreme Court in 1979. Thereafter Mr. Nimal G. Punchihewa joined the Local Government Service and served as the Secretary of the Kaduwela Village Council. Then he served as the Secretary of Land Rehabilitation Commission after serving as a Member of Co-operative Employees Commission, Chairman of Ceylon Fisheries Corporation, Director of Vocational Training Authority, Vice Chairman of National Apprentice and Industrial Training Authority and Project Director, Administration and Financial Director and Additional Secretary (Legal) of Human Rights Commission.
He has published a number of books and articles in the fields of Law and Human Rights and has represented Sri Lanka in various local and foreign workshops and conferences, while contributing to the activities of a number of governmental and non-governmental organizations.
Mr. Punchihewa has served as the Legal Director of the Election Commission from 2016 until he was appointed as the Chairman of the Election Commission and assisted the Election Commission in providing legal advice and actively contributed to the drafting legislation for legal reforms on election and voter registration.