WASHINGTON -- The Electoral College is an obscure and little understood part of every presidential election, but it is taking center stage in this year's neck-and-neck race for the White House between President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney.

The contest is so close some predict one candidate could take the popular vote while the other comes out ahead in the Electoral College.

But to win, a candidate must have a majority of Electoral College votes.

Some view the Electoral College as a stumbling block to real democracy, robbing the popular vote of importance. Others contend it ensures fairness and keeps states' power intact.

In any case, the Electoral College is tied to the popular vote and deeply influences campaigning. Here's a look at how it works:

Q. What is the Electoral College?

A: It's actually a process -- not a place -- that the Founding Fathers set up in the Constitution to choose a president. They decided "electors" would pick the president as a compromise between allowing Congress to elect the nation's chief executive and allowing a vote of the people to decide who would lead the nation.

The number of electors is 538. A presidential candidate needs at least 270 electoral votes to win.

Q: What happens in the Electoral College process?

A: First, each state selects electors, who can be ordinary or prominent citizens. How they do it varies by state. After Election Day, electors get together in each state to vote for president and vice president on separate ballots. That happens Dec. 17 in this presidential election. Finally, Congress counts the votes in a joint session Jan. 6 to make the results official.

Q: If the Electoral College chooses the president, does my vote count?

A: When a voter goes into a polling booth and casts a ballot for president, he's actually choosing his candidate's electors. The electors have pledged to vote in sync with their state's popular vote.

Q: Do electors have to vote according to the results of the popular vote in their states?

A: They aren't bound by any federal provision to vote in accordance with the popular vote, but about 26 states and the District of Columbia have laws or political-party pledges restricting electors. Sometimes an elector votes against the popular vote in his state, thus earning the title "faithless elector."

Q: Who are the electors? They're often people who political party leaders feel have been dedicated and deserve recognition. They could be state officials, party leaders or people with special ties to a presidential candidate. Members of Congress are not eligible to be electors.

Usually, state parties nominate electors at state conventions or their executive committee votes on them.

Q: How many electors does each state have?

A: Each state has the same number of electors as members in its congressional delegation. For instance, Texas has 38 electors total, equal to the state's allotment of 36 members in the House of Representatives and two senators.

Highly populated states like Texas have more electoral votes. California has the most with 55. Texas has the second most, followed by New York and Florida, each with 29. A constitutional amendment gives the District of Columbia three electors and the right to be treated like a state in the Electoral College. Three is the smallest number of electors for any state.

Q: How is it possible for a candidate to lose the popular vote but win the Electoral College vote or vice versa?

A: Most states have a winner-takes-all rule, so whichever candidate receives a majority of the popular vote -- or what's called a plurality -- takes all of the state's Electoral College votes. A plurality is less than 50 percent of the popular vote but more than any other candidate.

So even if a candidate wins, for instance, just 50.1 percent of the popular vote in a state, he wins all of the electoral votes in that state. The exceptions to the winner-takes-all rule are Maine and Nebraska.

Q: When was the last time a candidate won the popular vote but not the Electoral College vote?

A: In 2000, George W. Bush lost the popular vote by about 540,000 votes to former Vice President Al Gore. But Bush was declared the winner with 271 electoral votes to Gore's 266 -- following a Supreme Court ruling resulting in awarding Florida's then-25 electoral votes to Bush. But the election of a president who didn't win the popular vote is a highly unusual scenario in U.S. history.

Q: What happens if there's a tie and each presidential candidate gets 269 Electoral College votes?

A. If no candidate gets a majority of electoral votes, then the members of the House of Representatives pick the president. Each state's congressional delegation gets a single vote -- not each member. The delegations choose among the three presidential candidates who garnered the most electoral votes.

If the House doesn't elect a president by Inauguration Day on Jan. 20, then the vice president elect -- chosen by U.S. senators -- becomes acting president until the House elects the country's chief executive.

Senators pick a vice president from the top two electoral vote-getters among vice presidential candidates. Each of the 100 senators gets a vote.

Q: Why do some critics want to change or get rid of the Electoral College?

A: They say the system is outdated and ineffective, and that the Electoral College unjustly takes the power out of voters' hands and even suppresses voter turnout.

They note the Electoral College was created at a time when information was not as easily accessible as today, and the framers of the Constitution feared a popular vote would leave the fate of the presidency in the hands of the ill informed.

Q: Why do others support keeping the Electoral College in place?

A: They say the system distributes influence among highly populated areas and rural areas. States with lower populations such as Wyoming, for instance, have more say in the Electoral College system, so candidates don't focus only on metropolitan areas. They have to have widespread support to win.

Supporters also argue that minority interests are better served. Minorities can sway the outcome of elections better under the system. They also contend the Electoral College serves the Founding Fathers' intention that states retain key political powers.

Q: How does the Electoral College affect campaigning?

A: Presidential candidates don't usually organize their campaigns just by the number of electoral votes to be had in a state. They zero in on swing states -- also called battleground or purple states.

In a winner-takes-all world, they could be the difference between winning and losing the election. So in this election, Obama has all but ignored Texas and its 38 electoral votes because the super-red state is certain to go to Romney.

But Romney hasn't lavished Texas with attention, either, since he knows it's in the bag for him. Instead, both candidates are focusing on states that could go either way like Colorado, Florida, Virginia and Ohio.

Reach Scripps Howard News Service Washington correspondent Trish Choate at choatet@shns.com.

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