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?