It begins with prayers chanted in an ancient language and ends with a tiny figure on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica unveiled as the supreme pontiff of more than a billion Catholics. The conclave to elect a pope, which starts Tuesday, unfolds with elaborate ritual, deep secrecy and politicking that would warm the heart of a machine politician. While carried out in the trappings of past centuries, “in reality, the elections are a political fact,” said Paolo Francia, author of “The Conclave.” The voting is minutely scripted. Rectangular paper ballots are counted, collected, pierced with a needle and burned. Exactly four rounds of voting are permitted each day. The winner’s name is intoned in Latin. It is a process dating back centuries, with a rich history of chicanery — like the bought election of Julius II in 1503 and the undermining of a leading contender, Cardinal Giuseppe Siri, in 1978, thanks to the leaking of an embargoed interview he gave. There are no formal nominees, and technically, each cardinal enters the conclave as a possible pope. The next pope must garner two-thirds of the votes, or 77 of 115 in this case. In practice, a few names always emerge as favorites beforehand, although the principal truism is, “Go in a pope, come out a cardinal.”
As the College of Cardinals prepares to elect a new pope, security people like me wonder about the process. How does it work, and just how hard would it be to hack the vote? The rules for papal elections are steeped in tradition. John Paul II last codified them in 1996, and Benedict XVI left the rules largely untouched. The “Universi Dominici Gregis on the Vacancy of the Apostolic See and the Election of the Roman Pontiff” is surprisingly detailed. Every cardinal younger than 80 is eligible to vote. We expect 117 to be voting. The election takes place in the Sistine Chapel, directed by the church chamberlain. The ballot is entirely paper-based, and all ballot counting is done by hand. Votes are secret, but everything else is open. First, there’s the “pre-scrutiny” phase. “At least two or three” paper ballots are given to each cardinal, presumably so that a cardinal has extras in case he makes a mistake. Then nine election officials are randomly selected from the cardinals: three “scrutineers,” who count the votes; three “revisers,” who verify the results of the scrutineers; and three “infirmarii,” who collect the votes from those too sick to be in the chapel. Different sets of officials are chosen randomly for each ballot. Each cardinal, including the nine officials, writes his selection for pope on a rectangular ballot paper “as far as possible in handwriting that cannot be identified as his.” He then folds the paper lengthwise and holds it aloft for everyone to see. When everyone has written his vote, the “scrutiny” phase of the election begins.