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Electing a new pope draws on tradition and secrecy

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The members of the College of Cardinals are divided into the ranks of cardinals-deacon, cardinals-priest and cardinals-bishop. Each day of balloting starts with the selection of three scrutineers who count the votes; three infirmarians who collect the ballots of any cardinals too ill to go to the chapel; and three revisers who review the ballot count. They are chosen by lot with the cardinal-deacon lowest in seniority drawing the lots.

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Elaborate precautions are taken to ensure that there is no fraud. Each cardinal, disguising his handwriting, enters the name of his choice on a two-inch-wide card on which is printed at the top the Latin phrase "Eligo in Summum Pontificem" (I elect as Supreme Pontiff). He folds the ballot lengthwise to conceal the name.

The cardinals walk to the altar, one by one in order of precedence, holding the ballot aloft. Each prelate kneels briefly to pray and on rising declares, "I call as my witness Christ the Lord, who will be my judge, that my vote is given to the one whom, before God, I think should be elected." He then places the ballot on a plate, which covers a receptacle, usually a chalice. Lifting the paten, he allows the ballot to drop into the receptacle. The cardinal infirmarians leave the chapel carrying a locked box with a slit top to collect the ballots of sick cardinals.

Counting the ballots

Once all the cardinals have voted, the first scrutineer mixes the ballots by shaking the receptacle. The third scrutineer counts the still-folded ballots. If the number of ballots is not the same as the number of electors, the ballots are burned and the cardinals immediately vote again.

If the number of ballots is correct, the scrutineers begin the count seated at a table in front of the altar. The first scrutineer unfolds each ballot, silently notes the name written on it and hands it to the second scrutineer, who does the same and hands it on to the third, who reads the name aloud and records it. The cardinals may also keep a tally.

At the end of the count, the scrutineers announce the total number of votes each candidate has received. Any candidate who has received two-thirds of the votes of those present is elected pope. If the total is not divisible by three, the required number of votes for election is two-thirds plus one.

After the results are announced, the third scrutineer threads the ballots together with a needle, which he inserts through the word "eligo" (or "elect") printed on each voting card. He ties a knot at each end and turns the bundle of ballots and the scrutineers’ records over to the three revisers to be checked.

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If all is in order, the scrutineers, secretary of the conclave and masters of ceremonies burn the ballots and all notes taken by the scrutineers and cardinals in a special stove. Since 1903, the masters of ceremonies have added chemicals to color the smoke. If the tens of thousands of people waiting in St. Peter’s Square see white smoke, they know that the pope has been elected; if they see black smoke, he has not.

The only remaining record of the voting is a document that the camerlengo prepares at the end of the election giving the results of each session. The document is approved by the assisting cardinals, given to the new pope and then placed in a sealed envelope in the archives to be opened only with papal permission.

Breaking an impasse

If the voting is inconclusive, the cardinals may continue to cast up to four ballots each day — twice in the morning and twice in the afternoon. If they still have not elected a pope after three days, voting is suspended for a day of prayer, informal discussion and a brief spiritual exhortation by the senior cardinal-deacon.

If the impasse continues, there are seven more votes, a suspension and exhortation by the senior cardinal-priest, followed by another seven votes, a suspension and exhortation by the senior cardinal-bishop and a final seven votes.

Pope John Paul II introduced rules in 1996 that the requirement for a two-thirds majority could be waived after 12 days, and the pope may be chosen by an absolute majority. But Benedict canceled this provision in 2007.

Under the new rules, after 12 days, the choice of candidates is limited to the two men who received the most votes in the last round. The two candidates do not vote in this round and, to be elected pope, one needs to achieve a two-thirds majority.

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