How Does the Electoral College Work?

As most Americans learned in school and re-learned during the 2000 election, Americans do not directly elect their presidents and vice presidents. They actually elect "electors," who make up the Electoral College and cast the critical electoral votes for the nation's top two jobs.

The following is an Electoral College FAQ, courtesy of the Federal Elections Commission.

How are electors chosen?

The political parties (or independent candidates) in each state submit to the state's chief election official a list of individuals pledged to their candidate for president and equal in number to the state's electoral vote. Usually, the major political parties select these individuals either in their state party conventions or through appointment by their state party leaders, while third parties and independent candidates merely designate theirs.

Who cannot serve as an elector?

Members of Congress and employees of the federal government are prohibited from serving as electors in order to maintain the balance between the legislative and executive branches of the federal government.

How many electors does each state get?

Each state is allocated a number of electors equal to the number of its U.S. senators plus the number of its U.S. representatives.

How does a presidential ticket win electoral votes?

Whichever party slate wins the most popular votes in the state becomes that state's electors -- so that, in effect, whichever presidential ticket gets the most popular votes in a state wins all the electors of that state. (The two exceptions to this are Maine and Nebraska, where two electors are chosen by statewide popular vote and the remainder by the popular vote within each congressional district.) Colorado may change its system of allocation with Amendment 36 on the state's ballot this year.

When are electoral votes cast?

On the Monday following the second Wednesday of December (Monday, Dec. 13 this year), each state's electors meet in their respective state capitals and cast their electoral votes -- one for president and one for vice president. In order to prevent electors from voting only for "favorite sons" of their home state, at least one of their votes must be for a person from outside their state, though this is seldom a problem since the parties have consistently nominated presidential and vice presidential candidates from different states.

When are the electoral votes announced?

The electoral votes are then sealed and transmitted from each state to the president of the Senate who, on Jan. 6, opens and reads them before both houses of the Congress.

How are a president and vice president chosen?

The candidate for president with the most electoral votes, provided that it is an absolute majority (one vote over half of the total), is declared president. Similarly, the vice presidential candidate with the absolute majority of electoral votes is declared vice president.

What if no presidential candidate wins a majority of electoral votes?

In the event that no one obtains an absolute majority of electoral votes for president, the U.S. House of Representatives selects the president from among the top three contenders, with each state casting only one vote and an absolute majority of the states being required to elect. This has happened twice in American history. If it were to happen this cycle, President Bush would likely win re-election; a majority of the 50 congressional delegations are dominated by Republicans. Similarly, if no one obtains an absolute majority for vice president, then the U.S. Senate makes the selection from among the top two contenders for that office.

When are the new president and vice president sworn in?

At noon on Jan. 20, the duly elected president and vice president are sworn into office.

What are the arguments in favor of the Electoral College?

A common argument in favor of the Electoral College is that it forces the candidates to pay more attention to less-populated states that they would otherwise ignore. Those who are proponents of the two-party system claim the winner-takes-all result of the Electoral College helps avoid political instability and deadlock that would arise should the system be broken. Some argue the Electoral College system gives power to minority groups by allowing a relatively small number of voters in each state to make a difference in determining which candidate gets that state's electoral votes. Others argue the Electoral College maintains the federal system of government, which was designed to reserve such important political powers to the states as making a choice for the presidency and vice presidency.

What are the arguments against the Electoral College?

Some argue against the (mostly) winner-takes-all system allows for a candidate who loses the popular vote (as happened in 1824, 1876, 1888 and 2000) to win the presidency. Opponents claim it discourages voter turnout by making people feel their vote does not make a difference in noncompetitive states. Some say it violates the "one-person, one-vote" ideal since each state has a minimum of three electors, regardless of its population. This gives residents of the smallest states, which based on their population might otherwise be entitled to just one or two electors, more influence than residents of larger states. The current system does not require electors to vote the way they are pledged. This is an argument of lesser consequence, as the situation rarely happens, but there is, in fact, nothing preventing electors from voting for whom they choose.

Compiled by David Chalian.