Vol. XXVI No. 11 — November 1948


This Bulletin is concerned with the laws and practices which control balloting in American lodges. It does not take up the moral and ethical principles involved nor delve into the reasons, good and poor, for the casting of a negative ballot. Those are the subject of The Short Talk Bulletin,The Black Cube” (November 1929).

Here only the legal aspects of balloting practice are considered. That so much that is uniform exists is as remarkable as that so many variations in non-essentials have crept into the original plan as developed in the mother grand lodge in England.

Universally in the United States a unanimous ballot is required to elect a petitioner to receive the degrees. In this the forty-nine grand lodges are now more conservative than the mother grand lodge, strange as that appears.

Originally in England unanimous ballot was required. When Masonry was new, weak and in process of change from partly operative to purely speculative, quality, not quantity, was the end sought, and harmony, absence of dissension, a necessity. Hence the sixth of the General Regulations, printed in the Book of Constitutions (1723) reads:

No man can be made or enter’d a Brother in any particular Lodge, or admitted to be a member thereof, without the unanimous Consent of all the Members of that Lodge then present when the Candidate is propos’d and their Consent is formally ask’d by the Master; and they are to signify their Consent or Dissent in their own prudent way, either virtually or in form, but with Unanimity: Nor is this inherent privilege subject to Dispensation; because the Members of a particular Lodge are the best Judges of it; and if a fractious Member should be impos’d on them, it might spoil their Harmony, or hinder their Freedom: or even break and disperse the Lodge; which ought to be avoided by all good and true Brethren.

This provision did not last long in England. In the second edition of the Constitutions (1738) it is written: “But it was found inconvenient to insist on unanimity in several cases. And, therefore, the grand masters have allowed the lodges to admit a member if not above three ballots are against him; though some lodges desire no such allowance.”

In England today the latter rule prevails; a man may have three ballots against him and still be made a member, but the lodge may, if it wishes, demand unanimity.

In this country, where Freemasonry has thrived and increased as in no other land, the safeguard against undesirable candidates has been strictly adhered to so that “the blackball (or cube) is the bulwark of Freemasonry” has now the force and effect of a proverb.

A rejected candidate is held to be the property of the lodge rejecting him, so that he may not apply to another lodge without a waiver of jurisdiction from the rejecting lodge; in some grand jurisdictions this jurisdiction is perpetual; in others limited as to time. Most grand lodges also demand for their lodges a lapse of from six months to two years before a rejected petitioner may again apply; in some, he may apply again immediately and as often as he will, but always to the original rejecting lodge unless that lodge has waived the right.

Reconsideration of many questions can be moved in most parliamentary assemblies, but never in a lodge for the reconsideration of a ballot on a petition for the degrees of Freemasonry. In a majority of grand jurisdictions the master may, if he have good reasons, order a ballot retaken, but only immediately, at the same meeting and not after anyone who voted on the first ballot has left. Even grand masters and grand lodges cannot order reconsideration of ballots on petitioners, its material being universally held to be the inalienable possession of a lodge, and a lodge the judge of its membership.

Albert Gallatin Mackey, the great Masonic jurist, believed that an unfavorable report on the petition of a candidate, made by a competent committee, was tantamount to a rejection by the lodge, and that, in such cases, it was unnecessary to spread a ballot on the petition. His idea seems to have been that as a majority unfavorable report is necessarily made by two members of a three man committee, those two will of course ballot against the petitioner — therefore, why take a ballot?

Modern practice, however, has shown that what was right in the eyes of Dr. Mackey in early days when lodges were small and scattered, is incorrect in a day of many lodges, many with large memberships. It is now practically universal to vote on all petitions, even with unfavorable reports made against petitioners, in the belief that the committee men reporting in the negative may not themselves necessarily be present when the ballot is taken.

Dr. Mackey also stated that the proper way to take a ballot is for the secretary to call the roll of the Craft; as each member’s name is called, he advances to the altar, salutes, casts his ballot and reseats himself.

This might have been practical in a day when a lodge had from twenty to fifty members, but where lodges are one hundred, five hundred, even a thousand or more in membership, it is obviously impractical.

Few Masonic jurists will quarrel with the statement that every brother present at a meeting in which ballots are spread should cast his ballot. Unanimous consent is as necessary from the standpoint of the lodge as that the candidate come of his own free will and accord. It is, therefore, usually held that no brother present should refrain from balloting, or be permitted by the master to refrain, lest at some future time it be alleged that the admission of the candidate was not by “unanimous consent.” In thirty grand lodges the master must see that all brethren vote. In the others he may require or excuse.

However, the size of lodge, pressure of time, and occasional attendance of brethren by the hundreds, has worked against the purists’ conception of proper balloting practice. In some lodges today the master closes his eyes to the fact that not all brethren ballot; doubtless he is satisfied that those who do not ballot would ballot favorably if they balloted at all, and, therefore, their failure to ballot does not injure either lodge or candidate. But if carried to its logical conclusion, such a course would admit the right of all members present not to ballot, in which case, of course, the ballot might be only of the three principal officers and the secrecy of the ballot be impaired.

This secrecy of the ballot is of great importance, so much so that many grand lodges have passed strict laws against any member disclosing in advance how he will ballot, or how he has balloted. To announce “John Smith will never be a member of this lodge while I am alive,” in many grand lodges is considered a Masonic offense, which subjects the offender to Masonic discipline, as does the contrary statement, “Well, I’m sorry he was blackballed — I voted for him.”

It is not difficult to see why such statements are inimical to secrecy. If one member may announce how he has voted, all members who wish to may announce how they have voted. Suppose a candidate is rejected in a lodge with twenty brethren present. Nineteen brethren announce “I voted for him” Obviously the twentieth member is he who cast the black-ball and the secrecy of the ballot is broken.

The need for secrecy is based on the freedom of choice of the individual; if the ballot were public, pressure could be brought to bear on objectors; timid brethren would not want to subject themselves to argument with friends of the petitioner; a man may well have reasons, sufficient to him, why he does not wish the petitioner as a member, and yet be unwilling to state them publicly. The secret ballot, the unanimous ballot, the ballot in which every member of a lodge may take part, after ample notice that the ballot is to be spread, is the safeguard of that peace, harmony and unity for which all lodges strive.

It is common practice to retake a ballot in which only one negative ballot appears; this is to guard against a negative ballot cast in error. It happens less often in lodges which use black cubes than in those which use black balls. The black cube can be recognized by touch as well as sight; in a poor light, a black ball may look the same as a soiled white ball to a brother with defective vision.

In some jurisdictions a third ballot may be had at a master’s discretion, but the several ballots must be continuous, not interrupted by any other business.

The use of a ballot box is universal, and the great majority are so made that the hand of the brother balloting is concealed as he picks up his white or black ball (or cube) and deposits it in a separate compartment or in a tube which leads to a drawer below; this is to insure that no one sees the choice and thus inadvertently violate the secrecy of the ballot.

To make sure that the ballot box is properly prepared — having no black or white cubes in the compartment in which ballots are collected — it is inspected prior to each ballot, sometimes by the master alone, sometimes by master and both wardens; in the latter case, by the junior warden first, then the senior warden and finally the master.

To make sure that the ballot when closed is either clear or dark, a completed ballot is inspected by both wardens and by the master, all of whom report publicly to the lodge that the ballot is clear or the reverse. This assures all brethren present that no mistake has been made; that their three most trusted officers are agreed on the complexion of the ballot.

On the theory that the master and the wardens should be, like their jewels, “immoveable” in lodge during its period of labor, the ballot box is passed to the three principal officers. It should then (according to Mackey) be placed on the altar and every brother should advance, salute, ballot, and retire to his seat, to impress upon all present the sacredness, the secrecy, the inviolability of the ballot, which either admits to initiation a candidate — greatest gift in the power of a lodge to bestow — or denies it, and puts a permanent disability upon the petitioner.

These reasons have been to some extent lost sight of in some lodges in a practice of courtesy; in some lodges the ballot box is passed not only to the three principal “immoveable” officers, but to all officers; sometimes to all past masters. Sometimes the ballot box is passed to all the brethren. But many do not agree that courtesy is more important than the slight effort required to walk to the altar and declare before all men that each member realizes the great privilege which is his and the importance of what he does. Every lodge is a law unto itself in this matter, unless controlled by specific legislation of grand lodge.

Ballot boxes are usually single; in eleven grand lodges multiple ballot boxes are used; two grand lodges have no law on the subject. The multiple ballot box, in which either several single ballot boxes are placed side by side, or several are combined in one piece of furniture, are used to expedite balloting when several candidates are to be considered. In such use the names of the candidates are attached to the several boxes, or posted in front of each compartment of the single multiple box; brethren can thus vote as many times as there are boxes (or compartments in one box) with one approach to the altar.

Proponents of the idea say that it saves much time; opponents contend that it gives more opportunity for making mistakes, since brethren with poor eyesight may misread the names; also, brethren may easily confuse similar names.

In twelve grand lodges a collective ballot may be taken; the master reads several petitions, the brethren advance to the altar and cast their ballots on all at once; a negative ballot requires then that all the ballots must be taken separately. Of course in no case is the petition of one on whom an unfavorable report has been made by the committee, balloted on in company with one or more petitions on which favorable reports have been made.

Proponents of this practice contend that it saves time; opponents believe each petitioner is entitled to his individual ballot. Ballots are taken for all three degrees at once in forty-two grand jurisdictions; in seven, a ballot is had for one degree at a time. In three grand jurisdictions a ballot is taken not only on advancement from one degree to another, but on the moral fitness of a candidate. In these grand lodges, a candidate considered sufficiently proficient to advance might be stopped because of some exhibition of moral turpitude between the time of his original election and his advancement to a higher degree.

Ballot for affiliation, like ballot for initiation, must be unanimous in forty-six of the forty-nine Grand Lodges of the United States. In two, a two-thirds vote admits to membership on a petition for affiliation; in one, a four-fifths vote.

To waive jurisdiction, thirty-one grand lodges require a unanimous ballot; eighteen grand lodges require either a majority, two-thirds, three-fourths, or four-fifths — one rejects any plea for waiver by three negative ballots.

Different ages and sizes of grand lodges; different climates and peoples; different ideas, have all worked changes in the original plan of balloting. But in spite of variations in practice and in law, on the fundamentals all grand lodges are agreed.

No man may receive the privilege of Masonry against the will of any brother of the lodge to which he applies. A secret ballot is required hedged about with the strictest of provisions, the privilege of balloting, and the right of all lodges to select their material without interference or dictation is indefeasible.

The Masonic Service Association of North America