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Masonic Balloting

by Paul M. Bessel, May 17, 1999

A basic principle in Freemasonry is to be respectful and fair to everyone. In fact, this is fundamental to why Freemasonry was founded and why it exists. Masonic brethren should respect each other, and this includes

"our words, our actions, our appearance and even our thoughts. Inside the Lodge and outside of it, we should strive to demonstrate in every way our respect for a Brother's honor, feelings, efforts, hopes and any other part of his life that we may contact."(1)

However, the following are actual instances that have occurred recently. Other Masons can probably add many similar stories.

A man was blackballed because he was a car salesman. A Mason was blackballed from affiliating because someone thought he was trying to join a lodge with low dues. Men are routinely blackballed in some lodges because someone wants to see if they are interested enough to petition again. And, as recently as the last couple of months, again, men were blackballed because someone in the lodge said he would vote against any black man who ever applied there.

Is it any wonder that some people feel that rather than promoting brotherly love and civility, Masonic lodges have become places where applicants are often rejected for no good reason? What can be done, so brethren and non-Masons will view Freemasonry as an organization where we meet in a spirit of brotherly love and affection?

Many Masons believe that the current method of balloting on candidates for the degrees or for affiliation is the only possible method, and that it has always been used in Freemasonry. The idea of complete secrecy of how each Mason balloted, and the need for complete unanimity for an affirmative vote, are thought to be essential to promote harmony in the lodge. (But does it promote harmony to allow one member of the lodge to reject not only a single candidate, but also the opinions of all those who signed their names as recommenders of the candidate plus all the members of the investigating committee that approved the candidate?)(2) Even if "occasionally both the secrecy and the unanimity may seem to work a hardship on a man apparently worthy of being taken by the hand as a brother ... the occasional failure of the system to work complete justice may be laid to the individuals using it and not to the Fraternity ... The brother who casts a ballot, then, upon an applicant, wields a tremendous power."(3)

The author of a Short Talk Bulletin in 1929 described various reasons for the use of a black cube. A man who appears to be of good character might have been heard to be quarreling violently and striking his wife. (But is it possible that a mistake was made, and the man is thus unjustly rejected?) A candidate is known to have repeated information given to him in confidence. (But, again, who can say that they know this for a fact?) Some men are known to be ill-natured, vain and boastful, not potential assets to the lodge.(4) (Once again, do we really want each Mason to be able to reject a man because he believes the candidate is in one of these categories?)

And has the current system been successful in keeping out those who are quarrelsome, gossip-mongers, or vain and boastful? In fact, the same publication describes how a man who is turned down for a mortgage, or who feels that a car dealer did not give him a good deal, might retaliate by blackballing the application for lodge membership submitted by the person who he feels did not treat him properly. That would be unmasonic and an abuse, but the current system allows, even encourages, this use of the ballot for personal vendettas. In fact, the same Short Talk Bulletin that defends the system describes an actual case where a man blackballed a candidate four times, but the candidate was accepted after the blackballer moved away. The candidate turned out to be one of the best members of the lodge, yet the ballot procedure could have kept him out of Freemasonry forever.(5) An ill-used black cube, and no one can deny that this occurs, "crushes ... him who casts it," and "drops into the heart and blackens it."(6) Therefore, isn't there a better way to ballot?

According to Coil's Masonic Encyclopedia, "there is little evidence of a secret ballot until well along in the 18th century, and there was probably no ballot-box or other safeguard of a private ballot until the 19th."(7) What Masonic purposes are served by the current balloting procedures? "The purpose of the petition and the ballot is to get qualified men into the Society [Freemasonry] and to keep unqualified men out, and any reasonable procedure directed to that end is good Masonry."(8)

Our current ballot procedures allow dozens or even hundreds of members of a lodge who may be extremely enthusiastic about a petitioner to have their desires blocked by one member, who may not even have any substantial reason for his position. Even if those jurisdictions where it takes 3 or some other number of black cubes to reject a candidate (including England, the jurisdiction from which we obtained Freemasonry)(9), there is still some perceived good in allowing those who vote negatively to keep their reasons secret from their Masonic brethren. What is that perceived "good reason"?

Bernard E. Jones pointed out that in German and French lodges, those voting against candidates identify themselves and their reasons to the Master, who has the authority to determine that those reasons are frivolous. In fact, in German lodges every black ball has to be justified or else it is wholly disregarded, and it requires of the lodge members voting to reject a candidate. "In some masonic jurisdictions it is open for the whole Lodge to see how a Brother casts his vote."(10) Still, Jones came out in favor of secret balloting.

Another argument for secrecy is that Masons might be timid, and if their negative view of a candidate were known then pressure could be brought to bear on them to vote for the candidate.(11) Should Masonry be protecting men who are too timid to let their Brethren know if there is a good reason to reject a candidate?

As was pointed out in a Philalethes magazine article in 1989:

"Today, in the huge traffic snarl of the cities, no one knows the Candidate. So in long, boring sessions we ballot and give one man the full right to blackball and hide himself in a box. The tyranny of one man is hidden in secrecy and never to be disputed, because he is supposed to know more than the unanimous vote of all his brethren....No tyrant in history could ever work with such secrecy."(12)

We must understand that one who casts a black cube against a candidate does more than block his admission to Masonry. Since most jurisdictions say that a rejected candidate is still "the property" of the lodge that rejected him, he cannot petition to join any other lodge and often cannot even reapply to that lodge for a substantial period of time.(13) All because one man casts a black cube, possibly for an incorrect reason, possibly as a complete mistake.

How can we say that Masonry promotes democracy when we continue such a system? "Is this the spirit of the Masons who gave us a government in America of a representative majority rule?"(14)

The late, highly-respected Masonic author Allen E. Roberts wrote an article showing exactly how the ballot procedures allow one man in a lodge to "teach a lesson" to petitioners by rejecting everyone the first time to see if they care enough to petition again. Petitioners are also rejected because one lodge member is upset that "his" candidate was rejected, so he rejects others out of spite.(15) Others have mentioned a distinguished armed forces veteran who was rejected from Freemasonry because one brother thought only an enemy spy or a Communist could have been captured and then escaped, as he had been.(16)

Are these actions that promote the Masonic morality we talk about? Allen Roberts asked what purposes are served by the way we currently allow ballot boxes to be used, "other than protecting tyrants and cowards."(17)

We say Masonic brothers respect each other. Then why do we say that a brother can blackball a candidate without having the respect for his brethren to tell them why? His reason may be good or bad, but why not say what it is to his Brethren? Perhaps the Brother is opposed to a candidate or affiliate as the result of a misunderstanding, such as confusion over a name. This has happened. If this were brought into the open, it could be cleared up quickly. As Coil's says, referring to unfair attacks on Freemasonry as a secret society in words that could also apply to our current balloting methods, "The best way to preserve a falsity is to keep it secret; the best way to establish a truth is to expose it to the light."(18)

As Allen Roberts and others have pointed out, what is the logic behind balloting on those who are already Master Masons seeking to affiliate with another lodge, or to join a Royal Arch Chapter, Scottish Rite Valley, or another Masonic group?(19) How can anyone say that a Master Mason against whom no charges have been filed is not morally eligible to join another Masonic group? In 1948, some States allowed for a vote of or 4/5, rather than unanimity in voting for affiliation petitions.(20)

Allen E. Roberts, suggested, "Let the presiding officer ask: 'Does anyone have an objection to the petitioner?' If there are no objections, the petitioner should be declared elected. If there are objections hold over the petition for further -- legitimate -- investigation."(21) We often decide critical questions about the existence of lodges with open discussion and voting, so why can't similar procedures be used to vote on petitioners, which is generally a routine matter?

Some may feel this is too drastic a change in our ballot procedures. The Grand Lodge of Wisconsin offers a compromise.(22) If a black cube is in the ballot box, the Master announces that whoever has a valid reason for rejecting the petitioner must tell it the Master, in private, within 48 hours. If no one comes forward, the petitioner is elected. If a reason is given, the reason is transmitted to the Grand Master, who sends a written decision to the lodge about whether the reason is a valid, Masonic one. If it is, the petitioner is rejected; if it is not, the petitioner is elected. In either case, the brethren learn more each time about what reasons are, or are not, Masonically valid for voting against a petitioner. The identity of the objector can remain a secret, if that is thought to be useful. Only the reason he gave would become known.

There are already restrictions on the ability to blackball a petitioner. In Virginia, Masonic law says a petitioner "shall not be rejected" because his religious beliefs require him to wear a headdress at all times.(23) Also, "Race is not a proper ground for the rejection of a candidate."(24) It appears that if a Master feels either of these was the reason for the casting of a black cube, he must declare the petitioner elected.

One courageous Grand Master declared an African-American (who happened to be an armed forces officer and a Sunday school teacher in a large "white" church) entitled to receive the degrees even after he was blackballed, because no lodge member presented any reason for voting against the candidate other than his race. Even in a lodge, perhaps especially in a Masonic lodge where everyone is supposed to have pledged himself to a higher standard of morality, when a ballot is cast "not for reasons of morality or fitness, but as a tool of bigotry and prejudice, the ballot loses its sacred character and is properly subject to cancellation."(25)

Another suggestion, made by an author of an article in The Philalethes magazine, is to have the Master and the two Wardens, those who have been elected by the Lodge to be trusted to guide it, constitute a committee to vote on petitions. Any member could attend their meetings to offer advice, based on evidence, thus avoiding boring lodge procedures and eliminating the opportunity for unfair tactics.(26)

In Freemasonry, we want to be among friends, among those we know will always treat us and everyone else with respect and fairness, no matter what we are discussing or doing, no matter what our differences might be.

Freemasonry and justice must become synonyms. We need to raise the level of civility in all our Masonic activities to a higher level, to live by the Golden Rule, to promote the romance of Freemasonry, and to bring about true Brotherhood.(27) To accomplish that, perhaps we should start discussing whether our current balloting procedures help accomplish Masonic objectives or whether they detract from them.

For further reading:

Wisconsin Masonic Code, Section 71.13 - "Master's Authority if Reballot Not Clear"

Cobbs, Cabell F. "From the Grand East," The Virginia Masonic Herald, October 1989, page 3.

Coil, Henry W. Coil's Masonic Encyclopedia. Revised edition by Allen E. Roberts, 1996. Macoy Publishing and

Masonic Supply Company, Richmond, Virginia.

Gair, Edward M. "The Tyranny of One Man Hidden in a Box," The Philalethes magazine, August 1989, vol. 42, no. 2, page 11.

Jones, Bernard E. Freemason's Guide and Compendium. Barnes and Noble Books, New York, 1956.

Masonic Service Association of the United States (now named the Masonic Service Association of North America). The Short Talk Bulletin:

"The Black Cube" - November 1929

"Balloting" - November 1948

"The Golden Rule and Freemasonry" - December 1948

"Tell the Applicant" - August 1954

"All Sons of One Father" - November 1959

"You Signed His Petition" - March 1966

"Masonic Etiquette" - April 1980

"Take Me As I Take You" - July 1984

"Standard of Masonic Conduct" - June 1986

Roberts, Allen E. "The Ballot Box: An Instrument for Tyranny?," The Virginia Masonic Herald, July 1989, page 17.

Wine, William N. "The Power and Action of One Man. . . or: The Continuing Tyranny of the Ballot Box," The Philalethes magazine, June 1994, vol. 47, no. 3, page 71.

1. "Standard of Masonic Conduct," Short Talk Bulletin, June 1986, page 6.

2. "You Signed His Petition," Short Talk Bulletin, March 1966.

3. "The Black Cube," Short Talk Bulletin, November 1929, pages 3-4.

4. "The Black Cube," Short Talk Bulletin, November 1929, pages 5-6.

5. "The Black Cube," Short Talk Bulletin, November 1929, pages 7-8.

6. "The Black Cube," Short Talk Bulletin, November 1929, page 9.

7. Coil's, page 87.

8. Coil's, page 87.

9. "Balloting," Short Talk Bulletin, November 1948, page 3.

10. Jones, page 265.

11. "Balloting," Short Talk Bulletin, November 1948, page 6.

12. Gair, page 11.

13. "Balloting," Short Talk Bulletin, November 1948, page 4.

14. Gair, page 11.

15. Roberts, page 17.

16. Wine, page 71.

17. Roberts, page 17.

18. Coil's, page 618.

19. Roberts, page 17.

20. "Balloting," Short Talk Bulletin, November 1948, page 9.

21. Roberts, page 17.

22. Wisconsin Masonic Code, section 71.13.

23. Virginia Methodical Digest, 1991 Decision 11 concerning Section 2.92.

24. Virginia Methodical Digest, 1990 Decision 25 concerning Sections 1.42, 2.95, and 2.109

25. Cobbs, page 3.

26. Gair, page 11.

27. "The Golden Rule and Freemasonry," Short Talk Bulletin, December 1948; and "Tell the Applicant," Short Talk Bulletin, August 1954; "All Sons of One Father," Short Talk Bulletin, November 1959.

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