9 things you need to know about how cardinals actually vote in conclaves

The cardinals will be entering the conclave to vote for the new pope. How do they actually decide who to vote for? Here are 9 things you should know.
The cardinals will be entering the conclave to vote for the new pope. How do they actually decide who to vote for? Here are 9 things you should know. (photo: Register Files)

Soon the cardinals will enter the conclave and begin casting their votes for the new pope.

What's going through their minds as they do this? How do they actually go through the process of deciding, on any particular ballot, who to vote for?

Why is the first ballot so important? What patterns does history teach us? And is there any way we can help them?

Here are 9 things you need to know.


1. Why is the first ballot significant?

It is the first time that the cardinals get the "lay of the land" in a concrete way.

Up to this point, they have had discussions among themselves about who would be a good pope, and they have done some informal nose counting to get a sense of how much support there may be for different candidates.

Now, however, they get actual vote counts and can attach numbers to how much support different candidates have.

The cardinals will then factor this in to how they vote on the next ballot. Some candidates will gain support; others will lose it.


2. How has the role of the first ballot changed over time?

In the past, the cardinals sometimes used the first ballot to honor cardinals who they knew did not have a chance of winning.

For example, they might vote for cardinals who had served the Church long and well but who were now too old to be elected. Or, in the days when an Italian pope was guaranteed, they might vote for distinguished cardinals who weren't from Italy.

This practice caused conclaves to be longer, since it cluttered up the voting process with symbolic votes that weren't meant to lead to the election of an actual pope.

A well-respected but unelectable cardinal would get a certain number of tribute votes on the first ballot and then these would melt away on the second.

Today there is a desire for shorter conclaves, so that the cardinals do not appear to be divided in a way that would hamstring the new pope.

Thus the practice of giving tribute votes has faded, and now cardinals take this oath when they cast their ballots:

I call as my witness Christ the Lord who will be my judge, that my vote is given to the one who before God I think should be elected.

Despite this, the first ballot will almost certainly not result in a new pope.


3. Why will the first ballot almost certainly not result in a new pope?

Although it has happened that a pope has been elected on the first ballot--due to pre-conclave negotiations--this hasn't happened in centuries.

In recent history, all conclaves have taken at least three ballots.

Invariably, the first ballot is spread among a significant number of different candidates. Subsequent ballots are needed for a single candidate to accumulate enough votes to be elected pope.


4. If the cardinals swear that they are voting for the one they think should be elected, why do their votes change?

As they get new information, the cardinals' perception of who should be elected changes.

Among the things that affects their perception is a knowledge of how other cardinals have voted.

If they see that a particular candidate has no chance of receiving enough votes to be elected then, however good he might be in the abstract, he is not the one who will end up pope.

When a cardinal makes the determination that a particular candidate will not be elected (or has very little chance of being elected), his perception of who should be elected (in practice, not in the ideal) changes, and so does his vote.

Of course, knowledge of how the other cardinals are voting is only one factor that can change his perception of who should be elected. So can, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, further information he learns from discussions and further thoughts he has on his own.


5. Are there patterns to how cardinals change their votes?

Yes. Those candidates who receive a large number of votes tend, for a time, to gain even more votes. Those who have few votes tend, for a time, to lose votes.

For example, this year a total of 77 votes is needed to elect a new pope (that's 2/3rds the number of cardinal electors).

If Cardinal A has 40 votes on the first ballot, he has shown himself to have a strong following, which will tend to attract more votes on the next ballot.

Those votes have to come from somewhere, and they tend to come from candidates who had low numbers and who thus were less likely to win in the end.

Strong candidates tend, on average, to end up attracting the votes of cardinals who initially voted for weaker candidates.

When one of the strong candidates passes the 2/3rds mark, a papal election has occurred.

But the process is not a smooth one.


6. Why isn't the process smooth?

It may be that a given candidate tops out at a certain number of votes, before the 2/3rds threshold is reached.

There might be, for example, only 60 cardinals willing to support a particular candidate.

If the cardinals see that a particular candidate's support is "sticking" at a particular number of votes and he is not gaining more, they tend to shift their votes elsewhere, in hopes of finding another candidate who can be elected.

In this case, the formerly-leading candidate will start losing votes to candidates who initially had fewer. The ordinary process of strong candidates gaining votes and weak ones losing them will be, to some measure, reversed. 


7. What happens in case of a stalemate?

It can happen that two candidates both attract significant numbers of votes and then top out, short of either being elected.

In that case, the cardinals typically start looking for someone else--a compromise candidate who can attract the votes of more cardinals, even though he wasn't their first choice.

When that happens, the two leading candidates both start losing votes to other new, potential compromise candidates. 


8. How will the voting likely play out this time?

The details cannot be predicted in advance, and they may not even be publicly known afterwards. However, the overall pattern is likely to play out differently than in 2005.

Our best information is that, in the 2005 conclave, Cardinal Ratzinger received 47 votes on the first ballot and nobody else was even close. The next two strongest candidates were said to have been Cardinal Bergoglio, who is said to have received 10 votes, and Cardinal Martini, who is said to have received 9.

Even if these numbers aren't accurate, we have it from multiple sources that Cardinal Ratzinger made a strong showing on the first ballot, and it only took three more ballots for him to accumulate the 77 votes needed.

This is a model of what tends to happen when there is a strong frontrunner right from the beginning.

But this time, there doesn't appear to be a single frontrunner as strong as Cardinal Ratzinger was. The first ballot is likely to be more fractured, and it is likely to take a few more ballots for the cardinals to coalesce around a single candidate (the historical average is 6-7 ballots).

That won't stop various "kingmaker" cardinals from trying to muster as much support as possible for their preferred candidate on the first ballot, because if a candidate has more support on the first ballot, he is more likely he will be elected in the end.


9. What can we do to help the cardinals?

We can't do anything directly to help them. In fact, it is forbidden for people to approach the cardinals or attempt to influence their votes in any way during the conclave.

However, we can--and should--and must--pray for them.

They have to use their God-given intellects to try to figure out who should be elected, and that means making multiple prudential decisions as they cast their votes in the conclave.

But this is only the human side of the process.

The entire process is also divinely guided, and we need to be fervent in prayer, asking God to guide the cardinals to make the best choices possible until, at last, we have a new pope.


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