In the early history of the Holy Roman Empire, succession was hereditary. However, Emperors had a disturbing tendency to die without heirs, resulting in bloody struggles for the Imperial crown. Eventually a "limited elective monarchy" emerged: The princes of all the sovereign states making up the Empire would elect a candidate emperor, and the Pope would confirm this choice. Little by little, however, the more powerful princes began to dominate the elections, and the less powerful princes lost the right to this choice. By 1338 the princes were able to remove the requirement of Papal approval.

Charles IV's Golden Bull of 1356 named seven princes of the Holy Roman Empire whose votes would choose an emperor:

These also formed a Kurfürstenrat or Electoral Council, one of the three bodies of the Reichstag, a legislative body composed of hereditary rulers.

After King Wenceslaus of Bohemia was outsted in 1400, Bohemia's vote went inactive.

Kurfürst was the most powerful position a person could hold within the Empire, bar the Emperor. Princes were forbidden from styling themselves as König, although the electors of Saxony and Brandenburg found a way around this. It was also quite lucrative; every elector's vote was up to the highest bidder (The greed of the Archbishop of Mainz eventually led to the Protestant Reformation). After a while, however, it became apparent that only members of the Hapsburg family were getting elected.

During the Thirty Years' War, the Palatine fought on the wrong side. Their vote was transferred to their enemy and Hapsburg supporter, the Duke of Bavaria, in 1623. However, after the war, a new electorate was created for the Palatine.

In 1692 the Emperor created an electorate for the Duke of Braunschweig-L√ľneburg, which we call Hannover. However, this was not recognized until the diet of 1708. In the same election, the King of Bohemia (Emperor Joseph I) cast the first Bohemian vote in 300 years.

Then, in 1777, the Palatine was absorbed by Bavaria and its vote went away.

Finally, in 1801 and 1803, Napoleon Bonaparte, who had a firm control of most of Germany at the time, raised many of his allies to the status of Electors and dictated the transfers of several other electorates from those who had fought against him. The details are really irrelevant as the Holy Roman Empire was abolished by another of Napoleon's dicatates, in 1806, before any of the new Kurfürsten had a chance to exercise their votes.