WASHINGTON -- There are only 538 people in the country whose votes in this year's presidential election really matter.
They are the members of the Electoral College, a group alternately condemned as an archaic relic or venerated as a precious link to the time of the Founding Fathers.
When voters go to the polls today, they will be participating in but one of a chain of events that actually determines the next president.
The Constitutional Convention of 1787 laid out the method by which presidents and vice presidents are chosen, a process clarified in the 12th Amendment.
The popular perception today is that the Electoral College was created to save the illiterate populace from itself. There is some truth to that, but scholars note that the system of electors was a compromise between states-rights advocates and those seeking a popular election.
Here's how the system works.
The number of electors for each state is equal to the number of members of Congress to which that state is entitled; the District of Columbia, by virtue of the 23rd Amendment, has three electors.
The states, in conjunction with the political parties, determine how the electors are chosen; most states require that each party's electors be determined by a state convention.
Every state except Maine and Nebraska awards its electoral votes on a winner-takes-all basis to the candidate receiving the most popular votes. It is this feature that historically amplifies a popular vote victory into an Electoral College landslide and minimizes the electoral performance of independent or third-party candidates.
When you enter the polling booth, you might not notice anything about electors. Forty-two states and the District of Columbia use the presidential short ballot, on which the names of electors do not appear. Nonetheless, your choice of presidential ticket registers as a vote for its designated electors.
On Dec. 14, these 538 electors will meet in their respective state capitals to record their choices, which will be counted by the Congress in January. The candidate who gets 270 votes or more wins.
About half of the states do not require electors to be loyal to the candidates to whom they are pledged; but of the remainder, only five have laws that punish unfaithful electors.
At any rate, the disloyal elector has proven to be a historical oddity. There have been only nine out of about 17,000, the last of VTC whom was a West Virginia Democratic elector who in 1988 decided that he'd rather have Lloyd Bentsen as president and Michael Dukakis as vice president.
If a candidate does not receive 270 electoral votes, a new sequence of procedures unfolds.
The election is tossed into the House of Representatives, where each state's delegation has one vote. It takes a majority of states, 26, to choose a president.
If there is still a deadlock, the situation become pretty messy. The vice president-elect, who is chosen by the Senate, becomes the president until a president is chosen by the House.
There have been two instances in which the election was decided by the House. The more recent of those was in 1824, when John Quincy Adams was selected even though Andrew Jackson received more popular votes.
On one occasion, the electors themselves chose a candidate other than the one who received a popular plurality. That occurred in 1876, when Rutherford Hayes was declared the victor over Samuel Tilden, a decision that nearly plunged the country into chaos. Congress was spurred to create rules to settle the disputed electoral votes.