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Security of the papal election

February 11, 2013

Sincere warm wishes to Joseph Ratzinger as he prepares for the next phase of his remarkable career.


In every major election cycle, it seems that there are news releases about election fraud.  As you might suspect, though, the papal election process is uncommonly good, and resilient to tampering.  The major rules are set forth in John Paul II’s 23 February 1996 Universi Dominici Gregis (and were amended on 11 June 2007 by Benedict XVI’s motu propio De Aliquibus Mutationibus in Normis de Electione Romani Pontificis.

Bruce Schneier wrote a summary of the security of the papal election back in 2005; here are some excerpts:

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 done in public.

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: 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 room. (These officials are chosen randomly for each ballot.)

Each cardinal 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 is done voting, the “scrutiny” phase of the election begins. The cardinals proceed to the altar one by one. On the altar is a large chalice with a paten (the shallow metal plate used to hold communion wafers during mass) resting on top of it. Each cardinal places his folded ballot on the paten. Then he picks up the paten and slides his ballot into the chalice.

If a cardinal cannot walk to the altar, one of the Scrutineers – in full view of everyone – does this for him. If any cardinals are too sick to be in the chapel, the Scrutineers give the Infirmarii a locked empty box with a slot, and the three Infirmarii together collect those votes. (If a cardinal is too sick to write, he asks one of the Infirmarii to do it for him) The box is opened and the ballots are placed onto the paten and into the chalice, one at a time.

When all the ballots are in the chalice, the first Scrutineer shakes it several times in order to mix them. Then the third Scrutineer transfers the ballots, one by one, from one chalice to another, counting them in the process. If the total number of ballots is not correct, the ballots are burned and everyone votes again.

To count the votes, each ballot is opened and the vote is read by each Scrutineer in turn, the third one aloud. Each Scrutineer writes the vote on a tally sheet. This is all done in full view of the cardinals. The total number of votes cast for each person is written on a separate sheet of paper.

Then there’s the “post-scrutiny” phase. The Scrutineers tally the votes and determine if there’s a winner. Then the Revisers verify the entire process: ballots, tallies, everything. And then the ballots are burned.[…]  [Bruce Scheneier here comments on the famous black or white smoke, though my recollection was that in 2005, the bells of St. Peter’s Basilica were rung instead]

[T]he rules explicitly state that the chapel is to be checked for recording and transmission devices “with the help of trustworthy individuals of proven technical ability.” I read that the Vatican is worried about laser microphones, as there are windows near the chapel’s roof.[…]

A cardinal can’t stuff ballots when he votes. The complicated paten-and-chalice ritual ensures that each cardinal votes once – his ballot is visible – and also keeps his hand out of the chalice holding the other votes.[…]

Ballots from previous votes are burned, which makes it harder to use one to stuff the ballot box.[…]  [T]here’s one wrinkle: “If however a second vote is to take place immediately, the ballots from the first vote will be burned only at the end, together with those from the second vote.”[…] And lastly, the cardinals are in “choir dress” during the voting, which has translucent lace sleeves under a short red cape; much harder for sleight-of-hand tricks.[…]

The recent change in the process that lets the cardinals go back and forth from the chapel into their dorm rooms – instead of being locked in the chapel the whole time as was done previously – makes the process slightly less secure. But I’m sure it makes it a lot more comfortable.[…]

[W]hen an election process is left to develop over the course of a couple thousand years, you end up with something surprisingly good.

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