The decision was made in 1059 to take the clergy of Rome out of the system and have the chief bishops of Italy do the choosing, primarily as a way of reducing the Holy Roman emperor's influence. But his influence was never eliminated by any means until the disappearance of the Austrian emperor after World War I.
Q: How influential were the wishes of Catholic rulers from powerful countries like France and Spain?
A: They had the right of exclusion. There were times when cardinals came up from Paris or Madrid or Vienna with a list of cardinals that their rulers would not accept.
There were always those cardinals who said, 'We shouldn't pay any attention to those guys.' But a majority of cardinals agreed there would be too much of a schism if they supported someone who was opposed by a Catholic ruler.
Q: We know about the many craven popes of the distant past. How did this system produce such scoundrels?
A: Certainly part of the problem was the choices: They were choosing bad popes because they had bad cardinals.
Renaissance cardinals were basically Renaissance popes in miniature, little different than the popes they elected. They were wealthy, had children, and politicked like crazy in their city states, kingdoms, or countries.
They were basically making bad choices because there was nothing to choose from but bad choices. There were two popes in the 16th century who were pious men and outside the realm of Renaissance popes, but they both had short reigns.
Q: How does the voting work now?
A: You have to get a two-thirds majority. And you can't vote for yourself.