What is that electoral college anyway?

In 14 days, Americans will determine who will lead the nation for the next four years. Millions of us will vote, but how many of us actually understand how the president is elected? Ask someone on the street to explain who or what{}or where is the electoral college and you should expect to receive a lot of blank stares.

Perhaps a civics refresher course is in order. The electoral college actually elects the president. For three times in U.S. history, that has meant the person who moved into the White House did not win the popular vote, but, did have the required number of votes in the electoral college.

First rule to remember: The electoral college is a process, not a place! It was established in the Constitution as a compromise between election of the president by a vote of Congress and election of the president by a popular vote of qualified citizens.

Right now, the electoral college consists of 538 electors. These are the people you are really voting for when you cast your vote for president November 6. Each candidate has his own group of electors. With the exception of Maine and Nebraska, the states have a "winner-take-all" system that awards all electors to the winning presidential candidate in that state.

Each state is assigned a certain number of electors based on its number of congressional representatives plus 2 for the senators. For example, Alabama has nine electoral votes. In order to win the White House, a presidential candidate must rack up 270 electoral votes.

After the November election, the governor will prepare a "Certificate of Ascertainment" listing all the candidates who ran for president in Alabama along with the names of each person's electors. The electors will meet in December and cast their votes for president and vice president on separate ballots.

Those votes are then sent to Congress as part of the official records of the presidential election. On January 6, 2013, each state's electoral votes are counted in a joint session of Congress.

In case you were wondering, the three presidents who held office because of winning the electoral college vote but not the popular vote include, Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, Benjamin Harrison in 1888, and George W. Bush in 2000.