The Conclave Electoral System Explained - Valley News Live - KVLY/KXJB - Fargo/Grand Forks

The Conclave Electoral System Explained

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It's the oldest enduring electoral system in the world and many of its traditions have been unchanged for centuries.


The conclave (meaning "locked with a key") dates back to a time when cardinals actually were locked in until they chose a new pope. Now, it's the world that is locked out -- figuratively speaking -- as much of the conclave will take place behind closed doors.

The gathering begins with a morning mass in St. Peter's Basilica. In the afternoon, the 115 voting cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church (those under 80 years old) enter the Sistine Chapel. There, each will take an oath of secrecy, the penalty for which is automatic excommunication.

After the oath, preparations are made for the election, which is taken by secret ballot. Lots are drawn to select three cardinals who will help collect ballots, three more cardinals to count the votes, and a third group of three to review the results.

The ballots are simple pieces of paper with the Latin phrase "Eligo in summum Pontificem" ("I elect as Supreme Pontiff") printed at the top. Each elector writes the name of one candidate on the lower half of the ballot and folds it in half.

Then, in order of seniority, the cardinals take their ballots to the altar, where each places his folded ballot on a small disc, which in turn is used to drop the ballot into a chalice. Cardinals are not allowed to vote for themselves.

After all votes have been cast, the ballots are tallied, and the results are read aloud. More than a two-thirds majority is needed to declare a winner: in this case, 77 votes.

If there is no winner, the voting procedure is repeated, and if there is still no winner after the second vote, two more votes are scheduled for the afternoon.

Voting continues with up to four ballots each day until a winner is chosen.

Immediately following each round of voting, all ballots are burned in an incinerator constructed inside the chapel expressly for this purpose, sending off the most famous smoke signal in the world. If there's no winner, they're burned with a chemical that gives off black smoke, telling the crowd waiting in St. Peter's Square that a new pope has not yet been selected. Should a winner be selected, the ballots are burned alone, which gives off white smoke: a sign from the cardinals that they have chosen a new pope to lead the church.

Some strong contenders for the papacy include two Americans: Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York and Cardinal Sean Patrick O'Malley of Boston.


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