Sometimes you build the prototype

A lodge ballot box, consisting of a visible dish in the front and a hidden compartment in the back, made out of cardboard, against a background of an oriental rug.  These were used in lodge traditions to vote in new members, and occasionally to vote in officers.

One of my entry points into magical practice was John Michael Greer’s book Inside a Magical Lodge, about group magical practice and process in historical venues like the lodges of Freemasonry and groups that descended from them. I think the book was first published in 1998; it fell off a shelf in a used/new bookstore in Connecticut onto my head either late that year, or early the following year.

I count my experiences in Toastmasters among these lodge-descended traditions; that speaking and leadership training organization I belong to continues to be an important part of my life a decade after I first joined it. And it remains a viable path for group practice and growth to this day, a century after the organization was first formed from several interested clubs in the US and Canada. Toastmasters no longer votes in members by secret ballot, if it ever did; most clubs use a “unanimous consent” process to welcome new members today.

All the same, I’ve often returned to the idea of lodges in my magical practice, and to the idea of rotating officerships, so that members of the group learn all of the roles (and all of the challenges associated with each role)… and to its unique way of deciding if an applicant is worthy. It involves the magic of the ballot box.

We tend to think of ballot boxes as highly mundane objects, and not particularly magical at all. My town, small as it is, has a hand-cranked model from the late 1800s; and a nearby community has a ballot box that dates from the early 1800s, with a built-in brass mechanism that counts each ballot as it’s dropped in.

The Lodge Ballot Box is different. All the voting members of the lodge gather at one end of the hall before the vote, while the box is at some distance from them at the other end. Then in turn, each takes a black ball from a dish and a white ball from another dish, and marches forward to the box, where no one can see what they’re doing. One ball goes into the open tray at the front of the ballot box, and the other goes through a hole in the wall of the box into the concealed compartment at the back. A white ball in the back compartment elects the candidate to membership, or the officership, for which the vote is being conducted. A black ball is a vote against. The balls in the open tray serve as a checksum that a) all members have voted, b) that nobody double-voted, and that c) nobody cheated or skipped voting — the balls in the open tray should be an exact reverse of the vote in the concealed compartment.

Famously, in the case of candidates for Freemasonry, three black balls in the back compartment was enough to tank the candidate’s membership in the group. If three members didn’t like the candidate enough, they would not be admitted… and couldn’t reapply for at least a year, if ever. They could apply to another lodge, of course… but had to reveal that they’d first applied to a different lodge that rejected them. That was often enough to make the person blackballed — informally refused membership across the entire organization or tradition.

I’ve had it in mind to build a ballot box for a while now. I don’t entirely know why, though the fact that a book of magic bonked me on the head more than 20 years ago may have something to do with it. I now have the woodworking tools to build it, and the scrap wood, and the time… but, with the snows falling in my town, the window of opportunity to build it this year has passed me by. So, for now, I’ve built the prototype of the thing — a box of cardboard and glue and tape. Because sometimes, building the prototype first will save you a lot of hassle later on. It’s a place for you to make all the serious mistakes, before the challenges

To give you a sense of scale, it’s about 10.5″ long, and about 5.25″ high and 5.5″ wide. It feels plenty large enough to put your hands in to vote. The inner wall is slanted at about 10°-12° off of 90°. The cardboard itself is 1/8″ thick corrugated; if I shift up to 1/4″ or even 3/8″ plywood, or even 1/2″ pine, I think I’ll be able to manage the construction well enough with the tools I have. All in all, a good first theoretical idea translated into a concrete thing.

Sometimes, elections and voting have been built of flimsier things, like hopes and dreams and shared intentions. And yet, they’ve still worked marvelously well.

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