By H. L. Haywood
Freemasonry is a social and moral institution that undertakes to build a symbolic Temple of which its members are the living stones; inasmuch as the stability of the structure depends upon the materials of which it is composed it is obvious that the Craft must exercise every precaution lest unfit men weaken its walls. To guard against this it makes use of the secret ballot as an instrument of selection. Because of this most important use the ballot-box may well be described, as one writer has phrased it, “a bulwark of the Order. It is no exaggeration to say that ninety per cent of the trouble and lack of harmony in our lodges arises from the improper use of the ballot.” I believe that this statement is an exaggeration, for I have observed that many troubles have their origin elsewhere, but for all that there is much sense in it. The ballot is to the Order what the sentinel is to an army, what the tyler is to a lodge.
Performing as it does a function of such major importance it is natural that the ballot should be the storm-centre of no end of controversies and arguments. One brother has been led to exclaim that “the ballot question is the most irritating of all subjects relating to lodge government and discipline.” He had in mind the abuses that creep in through the employment of the secret unanimous ballot. Such abuses are evil enough, but it is a question whether they would not be as bad or worse under any other system, because it would be manifestly impossible to devise any method for the election of members that would not at some point or other or in some hands or other lend itself to misuse.
In the great majority of American jurisdictions a petition is put to the ballot one month after first reading, though a few shorten the interval to two weeks. In less than half the jurisdictions no separate ballot is required for the Second and Third Degrees; and in almost all jurisdictions a re-ballot is permitted if only one blackball has been cast: it is almost an invariable rule (and a just one) that a ballot cannot be reconsidered after the result has been declared. In about half the states a rejected petitioner may submit another application in six months: the other states require a year. In no case is a member exempted from voting save in a few jurisdictions where he may be excused by the Worshipful Master or by vote of the lodge.
It is almost a landmark in American Freemasonry that no petitioner can be accepted for membership save by a unanimous ballot. It is at this particular point that many brethren—some of whom have been among the leaders of the Craft—have directed their faultfinding, because it appears to them that such a usage places altogether too much power into the hands of an individual, so that if a member feel some personal slight against a petitioner, or has had a private quarrel with him, such things in no wise militating against the petitioner’s real fitness for membership, it would be unjust that a good man be prevented from Freemasonry because of such trivial circumstances. English lodges have long practiced the custom of requiring three blackballs, and there is much to be said in favour of that custom. Others there are who go to the opposite extreme and demand that a petitioner be elected by a majority merely; while others go so far as to ask the return of the ancient custom of a viva voce vote.
My own opinion is that the three blackballs rule is a good one, for it would appear to steer a middle course between extremes, but for all that I am quite contented with the system as it now operates in our land. One may agree with Brother J. G. Gibson (see his “Masonic Problems,” page 26) when he says that “the lodge certainly owes more Masonic consideration to a member than to a petitioner, no matter how prosperous, popular and prominent the latter may be.” If a member believes that a certain petitioner would be unwelcome to sit with him in lodge, or would prove disagreeable in Masonic society, the member has the first rights in the premises, not the petitioner.
The whole question as to how many blackballs should reject is one that must be decided by experience or expediency. There are no landmarks to go by, no ancient usages to bind the Order. On the contrary very different rules apply in different countries, and in the same country different rules have applied at different times, as is the case with England where the three blackball rule is now in force, though there was a time when a unanimous ballot was required. French lodges generally require one-fifth of the votes cast in order to reject. In other countries still the grand governing body sets up a minimum requirement—as, for example, that one-fifth of the ballots are required to reject—and then leaves it to each subordinate lodge to vary its practices at will inside that sine qua non.
There may be room for argument as to how many blackballs should be required for rejection but on one matter there would appear to be little ground for dispute: I refer to secrecy. Secrecy of ballot is in keeping with the genius of the Order as a whole, and Dr. Albert Mackey was well advised in putting secrecy among his famous twenty-five landmarks. It is true “that the use of the secret ballot had not even yet begun in 1720,” but it must be remembered that the rapid growth of, and the many changes in, the Society since those early years has made secrecy a necessity. If voting were done openly from the floor it would often happen that a member, having just but private reasons for believing a petitioner unworthy, would be driven by the tyranny of numbers to vote with the crowd. Besides, a negative oral vote might be reported to a rejected petitioner and bitter and unnecessary feelings be thereby engendered. Taking it up one side and down the other the present system is as good a method of balloting as can be devised: it is kind to the petitioner himself, it is kind to the voter, and it is fair to the lodge.
At the time of writing (1923) the Fraternity is inundated by petitions. Never before in the entire history of the institution has it been so snowed under by applications as now; one is reminded of the old complaint of Dr. Stukely “that the Order ran itself out of breath through the folly of the members.” We are now running ourselves out of breath. Lodges that once were put to it to reach three hundred members are now mounting to one thousand or two thousand and in a few cases more still. In such great bodies it is becoming necessary to devise new methods for balloting in order to expedite business, and in many cases the problem has come before Grand Lodges with the result that new ballot legislation, hitherto undreamed of, has been adopted. It is impossible to go into detail regarding these new usages, or to deal with them critically, because there are too many experiments now being tried, and space does not avail. It would be richly worthwhile for an individual student, or for a Study Club, to go into this matter thoroughly; it would prove a rewarding field of research in present-day jurisprudence, and many other subjects of cognate interest and importance would be meanwhile encountered, for the whole ballot system is one that insinuates itself into the very core of Freemasonry.
One more word needs to be said. “Be careful how you vote.” If you are a member of a board of directors of a business corporation and you are balloting on a new member or on the selection of a new cashier or president your ballot means nothing necessarily more than that you believe that the candidate is not technically qualified; your blackball would under no circumstances be considered an insult. If you vote against a political candidate it may mean, and usually is so considered, that you disagree with his policies, not that you deem him morally unfit for office. But when you vote against a petitioner for membership in our Fraternity it is a different matter, in almost every case, and far more serious, so far as the man’s reputation is concerned, because almost all the requirements of membership in the Order are of the moral type; you pass upon the man’s CHARACTER. It is unfair to him to blackball him on mere hearsay; or because you chance to entertain a merely private grudge against him, or for any reason less substantial than that he is unfit fundamentally for membership. The thing to be decided is not whether the petitioner is prosperous, or popular, but whether he will make a true Mason, a helpful brother, a desirable associate in the lodge room. If you have valid reasons for believing that a petitioner would not thus qualify it is your duty to vote against him; but you should not vote against him, if he be recommended by the committee on investigation, for any lesser reasons.
There’s a fine line between genius and insanity, I have erased this line.