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What method is used for the election? John Paul II’s constitution permits election only by scrutiny, or secret ballot. He eliminated election by acclamation, which allowed the cardinals to proclaim a new pope unanimously. He also eliminated election by delegation which empowered a small committee of electors to select a compromise candidate in the event of an electoral impasse. Pope Gregory X was elected in this way in 1271.

Are there “election judges” like we’d see at polling places in the United States? Not exactly, but there is a group of cardinals who help to facilitate the election process.  Before the voting begins, nine cardinals are selected by lot and without regard to seniority: three to serve as Scrutineers (vote counters); three to serve as Infirmarii (infirmarians), who distribute and collect ballots from any cardinals too ill to leave St. Martha’s House; and three to serve as Revisers, those who double check the calculations of the Scrutineers after each balloting session.

How does balloting actually take place? Disguising his handwriting, each cardinal writes the name of his selection on the ballot card and then proceeds by seniority to the altar to cast his vote. For the past 300 years, the receptacle for the ballots has been a 25-inch gold chalice, covered by a golden plate. Standing before the altar, each cardinal declares aloud: “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 his twice-folded ballot on the plate, which he tips so the card falls into the chalice. Then the unopened ballots are counted. If they do not correspond to the number of electors, they are burned and a new vote taken. If the numbers coincide, the ballots are opened and recorded by each of the Scrutineers, the last of whom reads aloud the name on each card so the other cardinals can keep a tally if they wish.

Meet the Cardinals here

How many votes are necessary to elect a pope? A candidate must receive two-thirds of the vote to be elected.  (If the number of electors cannot be divided evenly by three, a two-thirds plus one vote is required.)  Regardless of whether any single candidate has received the mandatory two-thirds vote, the ballots are inspected and the Scrutineers’ calculations double checked by the Revisers.

What happens if no one gets a two-thirds majority? If no one has received the required two-thirds majority, the ballots are set aside, and a new vote begun immediately, with two votes each morning and two each afternoon until a new pope is elected.

What gave rise to the custom of signaling a papal election with white smoke? At the end of each morning and afternoon session, the ballots from the two votes are burned together in a furnace near the Sistine Chapel. In the past, wet straw was added to the ballots of an indecisive vote to produce black smoke; dry straw was added to the ballots of a successful vote to produce white smoke, signaling the crowds in St. Peter’s Square the outcome of the conclave’s deliberations. In 1978 and 2005, a small vial of chemicals was substituted for the straw to produce the correctly colored smoke.

What if there is an impasse? If, after three days, a pope has not been elected, the cardinals are directed to take a day for prayer and discussions. Voting then continues with a day-long break after each series of seven ballots.

What if there is still no election? In Universi Dominici Gregis, Pope John Paul II degreed that if, after the fourth series of seven ballots, a pope has still not been elected, the cardinals may vote to change the rules to allow for the election from among the top two vote getters on the previous ballot. While Pope John Paul II allowed that the cardinal could also change the rules to vote to elect a new pope by an absolute majority (half plus one), Pope Benedict XVI reinstated the rule in 2007 that a pope must always be elected by a two-thirds majority. While the purpose of the new means of electing a pope provided by Pope John Paul II was to break a deadlock in future conclaves, none of the 11 conclaves since 1846 has lasted more than four days.

What happens after someone has received the required number of votes? Upon the election of a new pope, the Dean of the College of Cardinals (or, in the Dean’s absence the most senior cardinal present) steps forward and asks the newly elected his assent: “Do you accept your canonical election as Supreme Pontiff?” If the one elected accepts and he is already a bishop, he is immediately the bishop of Rome, pope, and head of the College of Bishops. The Cardinal Dean then asks: “By what name do you wish to be called?”  If he is not already a bishop, he is immediately ordained a bishop by the Dean or the most senior cardinal present.

So the person elected doesn’t have to be a bishop? No. Technically, any baptized Catholic man who is not a heretic, or in schism, or notorious for simony can be elected pope. The last man who was not a bishop to be elected pope was Cardinal Mauro Alberto Cappellari, a Camaldolese monk and prefect of the former Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, who was elected in 1831 and took the name Gregory XVI. The last non-cardinal to be elected pope was in 1378 when the Archbishop of Bari became Pope Urban VI. During a period of intense rivalry between Roman noble families, at least three laymen were elected pope: Benedict VIII (1012-24); John XIX (1024-32); and Benedict IX (1032-44; 1045; 1047-48).

Read: Conclave Starts & Faith Leaders Demand Congress Act Now On Gun Violence

Why does it take so long from the time white smoke appears until we find out who has been elected? As much as two hours can elapse from the first signs of white smoke over St. Peter’s Square and the new pope’s appearance on the central balcony of the Basilica. During that time, the new pope changes into the traditional white papal vestments and then returns to the Sistine Chapel where each of the electors offers a sign of homage and obedience.

If it’s not known who will be elected, are there white vestments in reserve for each cardinal? No, but there are three white cassocks tailored in advance to fit, at least roughly, any eventuality.  In 1978, Rome’s Gammarelli family designed cassocks to fit a tall-heavy, short-heavy or a medium-sized pope.

At what point does the public finally learn the name of the new pope? Soon after the new pope has received individual greetings from each of the cardinal electors, the senior cardinal deacon (in 2013, French Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran) will appear on the central balcony of St. Peter’s and announce: Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum.  Habemus papam.  Eminentissimum ac Reverendissimum Dominum, Dominum …[baptismal name] Sanctae Romanae Ecclesiae Cardinalem [surname] qui sibi nomen imposuit [chosen papal name]. Soon thereafter, the new pope appears and imparts his Urbi et Orbi blessing. Before 1978, popes were formally crowned in a ceremony several days after their election. Pope John Paul I broke that tradition, preferring instead a simpler Mass of installation to inaugurate his pontificate.

Has the pope always taken a new name when elected? No. In fact, before the eleventh century, popes commonly kept their baptismal names. The first known instance of a new pope choosing a different name was in 533, when a man bearing the name of a pagan god, Mercury, was elected; he choose the name John II.  The practice became commonplace with the election of Sylvester II (999-1003). Men baptized with the name Peter have chosen new names upon their election to the papacy out of deference to Peter the Apostle and first pope; John XIV, elected in 983, was the first to change his name from Peter. In all, the popes have chosen from a total of only 81 names. The most popular name of all has been John (with 23). Other popular names include Clement (14), Benedict (16), Gregory (16), Innocent (13), and Pius (12). Pope John Paul I was the first to choose a double name, and the last pope to choose a name without precedence was Pope Lando (913-14).

When were the most recent papal transitions? On April 2, 2005, Pope John Paul II died at the age of 84 after 26 years as pope. On April 19, 2005, German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, formerly prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was elected to succeed John Paul II. He took the name Pope Benedict XVI. There were two in 1978. On August 6, 1978, Pope Paul VI died at the age of 80 after 15 years as pope. His successor, Pope John Paul I, was elected 20 days later to serve only 34 days. He died very unexpectedly on September 28, 1978, shocking the world and calling the cardinals back to Rome for the second time in as many months. The second transition in 1978 ended with the election of Polish Cardinal Karol Wojtyła – John Paul II – on October 16, 1978. On February 11, 2013, Pope Benedict XVI became the first pope to resign since Gregory XII in 1415 (and the first to do so willingly since St. Celestine V in 1294). His resignation is effective at 8 p.m. Rome time (2 p.m. Eastern) on Thursday, February 28, effectively beginning a period of sede vacante.

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