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Blackball (blacklist)

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Blackball (blacklist)

"Blackballed" redirects here. For the 2004 film, see Blackballed (film).

Blackballing is a rejection in a traditional form of secret ballot, where a white ball or ballot constitutes a vote in support and a black ball signifies opposition.[1] This system is typically used where a club's rules provide that, rather than a majority of the votes, one or two objections are sufficient to defeat a proposition. Since the seventeenth century, these rules have commonly applied to elections to membership of many gentlemen's clubs and similar institutions such as Freemasonry and fraternities.

A large supply of black and white balls is provided for voters. Each voter audibly casts a single ball into the ballot box under cover of the box, or of a combination of a cloth and the box itself, so that observers can see who votes but not how they are voting. When all voting is complete, the box is opened and the balls displayed: all present can immediately see the result, without any means of knowing which members are objecting.


The principle of such election rules in a club is that it is self-perpetuating to preserve the current ethos (and exclusivity) of the club, by ensuring that candidates are congenial to (almost) all the existing members; i.e., new members are elected by unanimous or near-unanimous agreement of voting members. A difference of opinions could be divisive, so that an election must be taken secretly as well as correctly.

The number of votes in support is often irrelevant, except to prove a quorum. Whilst in many such cases even a single black ball will be fatal to the candidate's election, rules in larger clubs ensure that a single member cannot exercise a veto to the detriment of the future of the club. For example, two black balls are required to exclude; a limited category or committee of members vote, rather than all members; or in the event of a blackball, the election may be repeated immediately to ensure that there is no mistake, or after a fixed period to allow further information or opinions to be discussed discreetly. A variant sometimes used is that all incoming candidates are voted on as a group; if the group as a whole is blackballed, then each member must be voted on individually.

A blackballing is a disappointment, and should be a rare event in a congenial club where advance notice of candidates is given to members. If a candidate is blackballed, their proposer and seconder are often expected to resign from the club, as the failed election implied that they have fallen out of touch with the club's ethos as they were expected to realize that their candidate is undesirable and quietly convince him to remove himself from the candidacy before the lengthy application process reaches the voting stage. Thus a member with no personal knowledge of the candidate will not lightly cause the resignation of two others, but will either vote in favour or (where permitted) abstain. A member with an objection can communicate it privately to the proposer or seconder so as to give them an opportunity to withdraw or postpone their candidate, before the issue comes to a divisive vote.

Robert's Rules of Order notes that the use of black and white balls can be ordered by passing an incidental motion to that effect. The manual notes, "This custom, however, is apparently declining."[2]

The term remains still in use for many different voting systems which have applied from club to club and from time to time: for example, instead of differently coloured balls, ballot-balls may be dropped into separate "yes" or "no" drawers inside the ballot box. The origins of the blackball lie in ancient Greece, where people were excluded by use of the ostrakon (shell or potsherd) as a ballot in voting: see ostracize.

In some Masons' lodges, a black cube is used instead of a black ball so that a black ball can be differentiated from a dirty white ball, as the lighting in the meeting hall is very dim during voting.[3]

An example

The following example from the rules of election to the Travellers Club, which is quoted from Dickens's Dictionary of London (1879), provides an illustration of the principle:

"The members elect by ballot. When 12 and under 18 members ballot, one black ball, if repeated, shall exclude; if 18 and upwards ballot, two black balls exclude, and the ballot cannot be repeated. The presence of 12 members is necessary for a ballot."[4]


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