Monday, 21 March 2016

Blackballing and Ballot Boxes

The use of balloting using black and white balls in lodges dates way back to the eighteenth century, the method being a democratic, though anonymous means of electing new candidates and joining members, and to settle disputes within the lodge—a secret ballot in effect. So when a candidate is proposed and balloted for, a brother feels that he is not the right person to be involved in Freemasonry, they can choose a black ball, whereas if they favour the candidate, they would choose a white ball.

For example, in the Lodge of Probity, a lodge founded in 1738 which still meets in Halifax, Yorkshire, it was recorded in the minutes on the 10th of August, 1763, that a certain Robert Kelly was rejected as a new member with a ballot of ‘five yes, and seven no’.[i] In the same lodge, after a dispute between two brethren, balloting was used to determine whether either or both brethren should be expelled, and in January 1767, a final ballot was taken to determine whether one of the brethren should be readmitted as a member, the result being recorded thus:

For: 12 good masons

Against: 6 bad Brors.

It was thus agreed that this particular brother could visit and the dispute should never be brought up in the lodge again.[ii] In the York ‘Union’ Lodge, a lodge founded in 1777, the use of black and white balls for balloting was evident, as on 19th January, 1778, the lodge blackballed a new candidate and no reason was given. He obviously just wasn’t the right type of person for the lodge![iii] 

Other societies that became increasingly popular in the nineteenth century, such as the Oddfellows, also used a similar system of balloting, and there was even an instance of a ‘Discussion Class’ held at the Mechanics’ Institute in Warrington, Lancashire, using a similar method of balloting, proposing new members who had to be accepted by a majority; the class tried to become exclusive and twice rejected a would-be ‘debater’ on grounds of class, leading to the rules being changed.[iv]

The use of black and white balls also reflects the use of white and black within the lodge; the chequered floor of the lodge room and the use of dark clothing and white gloves, giving the working of the lodge an overall theme as well as a striking visual effect, reflecting the light and darkness of human nature; the black choice a negative one, the white choice being positive.

In rule 190 of the 1919 edition of the UGLE Constitutions, it states that ‘No person can be made a Mason in, or admitted a member of, a Lodge, if, on ballot, three black balls appear against him; but the by-laws of a Lodge may enact that one or two black balls shall exclude a candidate’.[v]  Thus, an effective and indeed, a flexible way of balloting has been used for centuries within lodges, to guarantee that ‘no Lodge should introduce into Masonry a person whom the Brethren consider unfit to be a member of their own Lodge.[vi]  Today, some lodges use a ‘yes’ or ‘nay’ box instead of black and white balls for voting.

The above article is taken from the book A Quick Guide to Freemasonry by Dr David Harrison and published by Lewis Masonic © 2013. Available from

All photos taken by Dr David Harrison © 2016.

[i] T.W. Hanson, The Lodge of Probity No. 61 1738-1938, (Halifax: Lodge of Probity, 1939), p.71.
[ii] Ibid., p.74.
[iii] Robert Leslie Wood, York Lodge No. 236, 1777-1977, (York, 1977), p.15.
[iv] W.B. Stephens, Adult Education and Society in an Industrial Town: Warrington 1800-1900, (Exeter: University of Exeter, 1980), p.81.
[v] See the Constitutions  of the Antient Fraternity of Free & Accepted Masons under the United Grand Lodge of England, (London: Freemasons Hall, 1919), p.97.
[vi] Ibid, p.98.

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