British Columbia points the way for Sri Lanka
People-designed electoral systems

by Kumar David

Real Power to the People: A Novel Approach to Electoral Reform in British Columbia by R. B. Herath. University Press of America, 2007; paperback 227 pages. (For orders: www.univpress.com or info@rbherath.com)

Where except in some Alice in Wonderland world would you commission a federation of undertakers to design life saving systems? In what macabre comedy would Nikolai Gogol populate a jury with prosecutors and defendants? And where but in Sri Lanka would you have a committee of parliamentarians design electoral reforms? I have heard MPs and MP-cum-Ministers express themselves freely about the Parliamentary Committee on Electoral Reform. No prizes for mapping the gist of the conversation; 90% of the concern was the stakeholders own re-election prospect, 10% was about "Will it benefit my party?" and 1% was about "my community." The greatest error Sri Lanka is making in electoral reform design is failing to exclude these self-serving incumbents from the process; it must be taken away from them and vested in the people.

The British Columbia case study

There has been a recent example where designing a new electoral system was taken away from politicians and parties and vested in the people and the experience has been meticulously recorded in a very readable book. This unique experiment took place in 2004-2005 in the Canadian province of British Columbia (BC) where a Citizens’ Assembly of 160 people was established to review the provincial electoral system and recommend an alternative if necessary. Eighty men and eighty women were drawn from adult Canadian citizens ordinarily resident in the province, with a small number of exceptions. The ineligibility criteria were telling; no federal or provincial MPs, no candidates at the last two elections, no officials or official representative of registered political parties, no judges and a few other categories.

The 160 assembly members were chosen by a random process from the provincial voters list but in such a way as to have one man and one woman from each of the 79 electoral districts. First, 15,800 names were drawn at random from the hat and gradually whittled down. The final membership included people from all classes and walks of life. Two persons of aboriginal ancestry (Native Canadians) were added to make the 160. The Chairman, a distinguished Canadian academic (Dr Jack Blaney, former president of Simon Frazer University) was nominated by the law minister (called the Attorney General) and confirmed after a hearing before a special panel of the legislature, making a total of 161. Administrative support and highly qualified research staff, downtown office space and a budget were provided by the BC Government. The Assembly worked from January to November 2004 and submitted a report recommending a new electoral system for BC. This was put to a provincial referendum in May 2005, but more on all this anon.

Why electoral reform?

Dr R. B. Herath, an engineer of Sri Lankan origin and BC resident, was fortunate to make it through the numerous steps of random selection all the way to assemblyman, and we are fortunate because he has chronicled the story of the Citizens’ Assembly in a book that will be of lasting value. Many communities are wracked by the problems of electoral mismatch, such as, legislators who are weak representatives because they are not close enough to electorates (proportional representation or PR systems), extreme swings of legislature strength (first past the post or FPTP systems) and limitations of voter choice (except where complex preferential voting is used). Dr Herath tells us about one brave effort to square these overlapping circles.

As a citizens’ group with no vested personal interests the process as described by Dr Herath was objective and driven by the overriding concern "What is best for BC?" British Columbia has had a longstanding FPTP system, identical with ours until the execrable J.R. Jayewardene constitution of 1978. FPTP has several drawbacks, firstly wild swings of majority such as 1956 and 1977 when the UNP and SLFP, respectively, were reduced to less than 10 seats in a 100-odd member House though they polled nearly 30% of the vote. The second defect is lack of proportionality, invariably the winning party polls no more than 40% of the vote but has a comfortable legislative majority and governs with hubris ignoring 60% of the population for the next five or six years. The third major defect is that minority parties may not get a look in. The JVP sees purple, or is it red, when reminded of FPTP; in the current PR scheme its 8% total poll translates to about 12 seats when it goes it alone, but if it goes it alone in an FPTP election the JVP will get zilch seats. The experience in BC over the years had been a replay of these same story lines. People were agitated and wanted something to better ensure proportionality and fairness; this was the genesis of interest in electoral reform.

The Assembly Process

The Citizens Assembly divided its activities into three phases, Learning, Public Hearing and Deliberation with breaks between phases. The Learning Phase was a three month intensive short-course in electoral systems taught by invited experts and Assembly research staff peppered with discussions. Chapter 4 details the different types of plurality-majority, proportional and preferential voting systems in use all over the world. In the two month Public Hearing Phase the 160 assemblymen split into small groups and conducted 50 public hearings in all parts of BC acclimatising themselves with the views of public interest groups, pressure groups and individuals. The Deliberation Phase consisted of two months of debate and discussion at which the Assembly thrashed out options, finalised a decision and wrote its report. All stages were open for public observation. The Assembly had its own website partitioned into a public submission and consultation section and a closed section for assemblymen to debate and exchange views.

Chapters 5 and 6 contain an illuminating summary of these phases and the different views canvassed by the public. The three-phase arrangement was a success since within a fairly short time a group of lay citizens became knowledgeable, engaged in adequate public consultation and arrived at a final recommendation with enthusiasm and commitment. There was substantial public interest, support and trust in the Assembly. It is unlikely that an electoral reform enquiry undertaken by a group of politicians would have won public interest or trust.

The outcome

In the Deliberation Phase the Assembly reduced its focus to two options PR-STV (proportional representation with single transferable vote) and MMP (mixed member proportional system). PR-STV is a system where party lists are placed on the ballot but voters can vote across party lines. A voter indicates a priority order by marking 1, 2, 3 etc (not necessarily from the same party) on the ballot; hence the system is skewed towards candidate rather than party preference. Electoral districts are multimember, in the range of 4 to 7. If for example there are 50,000 valid votes cast and 5 seats, then candidates who obtain above a Quota of 10,000 first preference votes are deemed elected – obviously this will be less than 5. Next the second preferences of these elected candidates and the second preferences of the lowest polling candidate are allocated among the others. The highest scorer is deemed elected and the process continues until all five seats are filled.

The MMP process is a constituency plus proportional based system. After the constituency seats are filled the PR seats are allocated so as to top up those parties that have obtained less than their fair proportional share. For example if a party secures 15% of the seats but polls 25% of the national vote, an additional number of seats will be allocated to it to raise its total to 25% of the legislature. This is more complicated than the straightforward mixed system proposed in Sri Lanka where the number of available PR seats is fixed in advance and will be distributed among parties in proportion to the total number of votes polled by each in all the constituencies.


Dr Herath provides an interesting account of the internal debates and fills us in with anecdotes that add to the readability of the text – I got through the whole book in three half-day sittings. Eventually the PR-STV option was adopted by the Assembly, much to the chagrin of the author, who, reading between the lines, seems to have been the leader of the MMP camp.

British Columbia conducted a referendum in May 2005 to ascertain whether to retain the FPTP system or change to PR-STV. The threshold was set very high; at least 60% of the electoral districts and 60% of the total provincial poll was demanded for ratification. While 77 of the 79 districts voted in favour of change, the total poll at 57.7% fell 2.3% short of the benchmark. Hence the reform proposal was deemed to have failed. A second referendum is proposed for some time in the future. Dr Herath is visibly bitter that the BC government did not conduct an adequate public education programme to explain the complex STV system and that both major parties in the province took a neutral stance during the referendum.

Some critical remarks

The book suffers from a few defects; the mechanics of the two prime actors PR-STV and MMP are glossed over. The mechanics, that is, the detailed workings of the former gets just three sentences, the latter just one sentence. "If a party won 10% of the seats but received 25% of the popular votes, it would get enough PR seats to give it 25% of the seats in the legislature." This is all we are told about the nitty-gritty of MMP. Rather unhelpfully we are told that parties that get more seats than their share of the popular vote will not have any seats taken away from this. Hence size of the legislature has to ebb and flow, like the tide, but nothing is explained. The STV story as related in the book is even more confusing. "If a candidate has more than a Quota (10,000 in the previous example), the surplus is transferred to other candidates based on the second preference indicated", we are told. But which ballots are considered surplus? After all the second preference indicated on different ballots will be different!

There is some repetition that can be usefully edited out. The heaviest repetition is summarising the advantages and disadvantages of different electoral systems; discursively in Chapter 3 and, irritatingly, twice in Chapter 6 in bullet-point form. Economising on space in this respect will make ample space for detailing the working mechanics of the two key electoral options; something for a second edition.

Real Power to the People is a must for all readers interested in electoral reform, and that means everybody who is interested in politics in Sri Lanka. Chapter 8 entitled Sober Reflection is a thoughtful and useful drawing together of the whole experience. This is an attractively styled and well written book; I recommend it to you.


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