In just a matter of hours, the College of Cardinals will gather to cast their first vote on a new pope, but don't expect a winner to be chosen today. By now, you've probably read a lot about the mysterious and ancient traditions of the papal conclave, but since it is actually going to get started very soon, we thought we'd give you a quick refresher course on what will actually happen inside the Sistine Chapel today.
After spending the morning holding a mass "pro eligendo Romano Pontifice" ("for the election of the Roman Pontiff"), the cardinals will return to their nearby hotel for a early afternoon break. At 4:30 p.m. local time (11:30 a.m. on the East coast), they will begin the Procession of the Electors, where the voting cardinals will march from the Pauline Chapel to the Sistine Chapel, where the votes will be held. Once there, they will sing hymns and take their oaths of secrecy. Each cardinal takes the oath individually, swearing on a Bible—the entire proceeding is conducted in Latin, naturally—that they "promise and swear to observe with the greatest fidelity and with all persons, secrecy regarding everything that in any way relates to the election of the Roman Pontiff." All other persons not participating in the vote are then ordered out of the chapel, and the doors are locked. No communication of any kind is supposed to pass in or out of the Chapel, and The Vatican goes so far as to sweep for bugs and block electronic signals.
When they are ready to vote, each of the 115 voting cardinals writes the name of their choice on a piece of paper that is folded and placed inside a large silver urn, where they can be mixed up before being counted. Three cardinals then oversee the counting of the votes, with one running a needle and thread through each ballot, so that they know it's been counted. If any one person receives two-thirds of the vote (in this case, 77 votes), the election is over. If not, they try again. Technically, the cardinals can vote for any Catholic male, but it's been about 700 years since a pope was elected who wasn't already a cardinal himself.
After each round of voting, the ballots are burned in a special stove. There are actually two, one of which sends up the special coloring agents to signify, via the chimney, whether a majority has been reached or not. Hence the black and white smoke. Black for no pope yet, white for yes. Bells will also ring out in case there is an issue with the smoke signal not being clear, which has happened before. The whole process for each vote takes around two hours, so the Vatican expects the results of the first vote to be announced around 7:00 p.m. local time (2:00 p.m. Eastern.) Click here for a more thorough breakdown of "smoke times."
It's highly unlikely that one cardinal will receive the 77 votes on the first try, so pretty much everyone is expecting to see black smoke this evening. There will be one vote today, but four each day after that (two in the morning and two in the afternoon) until the consensus builds around one candidate. It reportedly took four ballots for Cardinal Ratzinger to become Benedict XVI, though this year's conclave could go on a little longer, since there are several strong contenders.
Once a majority has been reached, then the person selected is asked if he wishes to accept the position as pope. (He doesn't have to, but ... come on.) If he accepts, he is then asked which papal name he wants to take. Then he is taken into a side room in the Chapel known as the Room of Tears, where he changes into his new papal robes. The Vatican has already had three sets made, in small, medium, and large, so the Pope can get dressed right away and be introduced to world.
And that's how its done. Someday we may learn exactly how this vote plays out, what alliances were formed, and who the also-rans where, but for now, the rest of the world will just have to sit and wait.