Image: The California state capitol
Justin Sullivan  /  Getty Images file
The California state Capitol in Sacramento where the state's 55 Democratic electors will cast their votes for Barack Obama Monday afternoon.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com
updated 12/11/2008 3:14:04 PM ET 2008-12-11T20:14:04

You may be wondering why the headline on this story says Election Day is Monday.

You may have thought Election Day already took place on Nov. 4, but under the Constitution, presidents are chosen by the electors, not by voters.

And Monday is the day that each state's presidential electors meet in each state Capitol and in the District of Columbia to cast their votes for president.

Here are some of the basics on the election and the electors:

What did voters do back on Nov. 4?
Voters cast their ballots on Nov. 4 for a slate of electors in each state and the District of Columbia. Those electors, in turn, will cast votes on Monday for the candidates to whom they are pledged. On each state's ballot were a slate of Democratic electors, a slate of Republican electors and slate of various minor party electors.

How many electors are there altogether?
538.

How many electoral votes does it take to win the presidency?
270.

What is the Electoral College?
It is the name applied collectively to all 538 electors. The term "Electoral College" does not appear in the Constitution but was written into federal law in 1845, and appears in the United States Code (3 U.S.C. section 4), as "college of electors."

Does the Electoral College convene, as a college faculty would gather for a meeting?
No, the Constitution requires each state’s electors to convene in their respective states, but the electors from all 50 states and the District of Columbia never meet in one place at the same time.

Why don’t all 538 electors meet in one place at the same time?
The Framers of the Constitution feared that, in the words of Alexander Hamilton, if the electors all met in one place, they’d be vulnerable to "cabal, intrigue and corruption" and that foreign governments seeking to gain an improper influence over the government might bribe them.

How are the 538 electors divided among the states?
They are divided roughly on the basis of population. States with large populations get lots of electors; states with small populations get few. No matter how small its population, each gets at least three electoral votes.

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Each state gets a number of electors equal to the number of its members of the House of Representatives (which is proportional to population), plus two — since every state has two senators. Tennessee, for example, has nine representatives and two senators, therefore it has 11 electoral votes.

If a candidate wins only 51 percent of the votes in a state, why does he get 100 percent of that state’s electoral votes?
Forty-eight states have laws that mandate a winner-take-all system for electoral votes: The person with the statewide plurality of the votes gets all the electoral votes.

Maine and Nebraska are the only states that allot electoral votes based on who wins each of the state’s congressional districts and who wins statewide.

President-elect Barack Obama won one of Nebraska's three congressional districts, therefore he won one of the state's five electoral votes. This is the first time that the state has split its votes since it adopted the district system in 1991.

Will there be separate meetings on Monday, with Republican electors meeting in some states and Democratic electors meeting in others?
Yes, in a state that Barack Obama won, such as New Jersey, a group of 15 Democratic electors will meet in the state Capitol in Trenton.

In a state that John McCain won, such as Tennessee, a group of 11 Republican electors will meet in Nashville.

Who counts the electoral votes to determine who won the presidency?
Congress will meet in joint session on Jan. 6, 2009 to count the votes of the electors.

If a majority of a state’s voters voted for the Republican ticket, what happens to the slate of Democratic electors from that state?
If a majority of a state’s voters chose the Republican ticket, then the Republican slate of electors was chosen. At that point, the Democratic slate of electors does not matter.

Who selected the electors?
The political parties chose the electors. They are often party loyalists selected as a reward for years of faithful service.

What was the intention of the Framers of the Constitution when it came to the role of the electors?
The intent was that "electors would be free agents, to exercise an independent and nonpartisan judgment as to the men best qualified for the Nation's highest offices,'' Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson wrote in 1952.

But the system has evolved into something quite different from what the Framers intended: electors today almost always act as rubber stamps, chosen by their party to vote for its nominee.

Is it up to each state’s legislature to decide how its electors are chosen?
Yes.

A legislature could for instance, appoint a specific group of electors, such as retired judges. Or it could choose electors randomly from a list of the state’s registered voters, or it could say the candidate who wins the most votes nationwide would get all of that state’s electoral votes.

The Constitution does not require that electors be chosen to reflect the popular vote in that state, although the tradition of following the popular vote is well established.

Can an elector pledged to vote for a candidate cast his or her vote for someone else?
Yes, but this rarely happens.

Since the first election in 1789, ten electors have decided to vote for a presidential candidate other than the one to whom they were pledged.

In 1972, for example, Virginia elector Roger MacBride was pledged to the Republican presidential candidate, Richard Nixon, but instead cast his vote for Libertarian presidential candidate John Hospers. It didn’t affect the outcome of the election, as Nixon won with 520 of the 538 electoral votes.

Can an elector be punished if he does not vote for the candidate to whom he or she is pledged?
In some cases he or she could be: 25 states and the District of Columbia have laws binding electors.

Are there moves afoot to change the electoral vote system?
Maryland, New Jersey, Hawaii, and Illinois have enacted a measure called the National Popular Vote bill.

Under this law, a state's electoral votes would be awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

The legislation would not take effect until the enactment of identical laws in enough other states to reach a majority of the electoral votes, that is, 270 out of 538.

Could Congress scrap the electoral vote system?
It could begin to do so by proposing an amendment to the Constitution, but that proposal would need to be ratified by three-quarters of the states.

Has Congress ever considered scrapping the Electoral College system?
Yes, in 1969 the House approved a proposed constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College and to provide for direct popular election of the president.

That plan called for a minimum of 40 percent of the popular vote required to win the presidency, with a runoff election between the top-two finishers should the minimum not be met.

The proposal was killed in the Senate by legislators from small states and Southern states.

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