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.