How The Voting For The Next Pope Actually Works

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Today, after weeks of trepidation, the Vatican's papal conclave finally began.

The secretive election process will see Catholic cardinals vote on who becomes the new Pope, taking the reigns of the 1 billion-strong Catholic Church from Pope Benedict, who retired last month.

But what actually happens during the election?

Officially, the papal conclave begins with the Latin words "Extra omnes" — "Everyone out" — expelling all but voting cardinals from the Sistine Chapel where conclave balloting takes place.

There are 115 Cardinals who are eligible to vote from all around the world. Cardinals over the age of 80 at the time the papacy become vacant are ineligible. Two Cardinals that were eligible will not be voting — a seriously ill Indonesian cardinal and a Scottish cardinal who acknowledged sexually inappropriate conduct.

Right now, the make up of the electorate looks like this:

  • 10 are from Africa
  • 12 are from Asia
  • 20 are from North America
  • 13 from South America
  • 60 are from Europe.

That European voting bloc, in particular the Italians, may well be a serious king-maker, by the way.

From the start of the conclave onward, the Cardinals are completely cut off from the outside world inside a hostel within the Vatican. Voting takes place inside a locked Sistine Chapel. Tweets and texts will be completely banned, and Cardinals are supposed to be completely cut off from the outside world — TV, radio, and newspapers are all banned.

Security at the Sisten Chapel will be tight. Sweeps will be made for bugs or recording devices, and jamming devices will be used to detect any cellphones..

After the first day, four ballots will be held each day, with the cardinals writing "Eligo in summen pontificem," or "I elect as supreme pontiff" and then the name. Ballots are then stuffed into an urn and counted.

A two-thirds plus one majority is required to elect the Pope.

Three Cardinals delegated as Scrutineers count the ballots, ensure everyone has voted, each make a count and then burn the ballots.

The scrutineers douse the discarded ballots with chemicals (or something else, it isn't entirely clear) to make the smoke black if there isn't a Pope, and make the smoke white in the event that "Habemus Papam."

There are four votes a day, and smoke will appear after the 2nd and 4th votes of the day at 12pm or 7pm (Rome time)

However, if the 1st or the 3rd vote of the day results in a new Pope, the smoke may appear at 11am or 6pm. This smoke will definitely be white if it appears.

So, if you're on EST, this means you should be watching the chimney definitely at 7am and 2pm, and probably at 6am and 1pm. For more information on that, check here.

In the past the papal conclave has gone on for weeks, months, even years (the conclave of 1268 lasted over two years and the cardinals had to be starved into a decision). However, in recent years they have been relatively short — the longest papal conclave in the 20th century was 1922, when the cardinals voted 14 times over 5 days. If the conclave lasts more than 12 or 13 days, the Cardinals can swap over to majority voting to expedite the process. 

Once a candidate has been selected, it is up to him to accept. With the word "Accepto" — "I accept," the papal conclave is over, and the Catholic Church has a new Pope.



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