Who really elects the president of the United States?

As I watched the political dog and pony show on TV - you know, the one leading up to the presidential preference election on Super Tuesday - I got to thinking back on my college history and government classes.

Some time before the vote, I was talking to some politically active, conservative friends who were promoting Ron Paul as president, and was surprised to find they knew nothing about the Electoral College, the political entity that sometimes makes your vote and mine worthless in the presidential election.

Yep. You heard me. If the Electoral College members choose to thumb their noses at the popular vote, they can simply elect the candidate of their choice.

My friends were astounded to learn of such an apparent injustice, so I started thinking maybe I should do what I can to draw this to voters' attention.

I, myself, believe it's time to abolish the Electoral College, which, by the way, is responsible for George W. Bush being president now.

Al Gore thrashed Bush in the popular vote. The Electoral College put George Dubya into office anyway, against the majority's wishes.

And he's not the only president to gain office after losing the election. There have been two others.

So seems it's time for a brief but important lesson in U.S. Government 101.

I got online and did a little research. Here's what I found at usgovinfo.about.com:

Every fourth November, after almost two years of campaign hype and millions and milliions of dollars spent, more than 90 million Americans vote for the next president of the United States of America. But do your votes really count?

A few short weeks after the presidential election, in the middle of December, the president and vice president of the United States are actually elected by the votes of only 538 citizens - the electors of the Electoral College.

According to the Web site, the Electoral College system was established in Article II of the Constitution and amended by the 12th Amendment in 1804 because the founding fathers feared the popular vote.

Now there are many critics who believe the Electoral College has outlived its usefulness and should be abolished.

Read on and you decide whether the Electoral College should stay or go.

When you vote for a presidential candidate, you are in actuality only voting to instruct the electors from your state to cast their votes for that same candidate.

For example, if you vote for the Republican candidate, you are really voting for an elector who will be "pledged" to vote for the Republican candidate. Ideally, the candidate who wins the popular vote in a state wins all the pledged votes of the state's electors.

But, while the state electors pledge to vote for the candidate of the party that chose them, nothing in the Constitution requires them to do so.

In rare instances, an elector will defect and not vote for his or her party's candidate. Such "faithless" elector votes rarely change the outcome of the election, and laws of some states prohibit electors from casting faithless votes.

Since Electoral College representation is based on congressional representation, states with larger populations get more Electoral College votes.

Each state gets a number of electors equal to its number of members in the U.S. House of Representatives, plus one for each of its two U.S. Senators. The District of Columbia gets three electors.

While state laws determine how electors are chosen, they generally are selected by the political party committees within the individual states.

Each elector gets one vote. Thus, a state with eight electors would cast eight votes. There are now 538 electors and the votes of a majority of them - 270 votes - are required to be elected.

Arizona has 10 electors. Here's a breakdown that shows how many electors each of the other states has, from most to least: California 55; Texas 34; New York 31; Florida 27; Illinois and Pennsylvania, 21 each; Ohio 20; Michigan 17; Georgia and North Carolina, 15 each; Virginia 13; Massachusetts 12; Indiana, Tennessee, Washington, and Missouri, 11 each; Maryland, Minnesota and Wisconsin, 10 each; Colorado, Alabama and Louisiana, 9 each, Kentucky and South Carolina, 8 each; Oklahoma, Oregon, Connecticut and Iowa, 7 each; Arkansas, Mississippi and Kansas, 6 each; Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and West Virginia, 5 each, New Hampshire, Hawaii, Idaho, Rhode Island and Maine, 4 each; and Montana, Alaska, Delaware, District of Columbia, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming and Vermont, all get just 3 electoral votes each.

A look at the electoral votes from each state and a little math will tell you that the Electoral College system makes it possible for a candidate to actually lose the nationwide popular vote, but be elected president by the Electoral College.

In fact, it is possible for a candidate to not get a single person's vote - not a single one - in 39 states or the District of Columbia, yet still be elected president by winning the Electoral College vote in just 11 of these 12 states: California, New York, Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, New Jersey, North Carolina, Georgia and Virginia.

Has a presidential candidate ever lost the nationwide popular vote but been elected president in the Electoral College? Yes, three times:

• In 1876 there were a total of 369 electoral votes available with 185 needed to win. Republican Rutherford B. Hayes received 4,036,298 popular votes and 185 electoral votes.

His main opponent, Democrat Samuel J. Tilden, won the popular vote with 4,300,590 votes, but received only 184 electoral votes.

Hayes was elected president.

• In 1888 there were a total of 401 electoral votes available with 201 needed to win. Republican Benjamin Harrison, with 5,439,853 popular votes, won 233 electoral votes. His main opponent, Democrat Grover Cleveland, won the popular vote with 5,540,309 votes, but received only 168 electoral votes. Harrison was elected president.

• In 2000 there were a total of 538 electoral votes available with 270 needed to win. Republican George W. Bush, with 50,456,002 popular votes, won 271 electoral votes. His Democratic opponent, Al Gore, won the popular vote with 50,999,897 votes, but won only 266 electoral votes. Bush was elected president.

Does the Electoral College work? Maybe the founding fathers were right to fear the popular vote, but not necessarily because of voter ignorance or lack of education, as some have supposed.

My guess is they had some forethought about the possibility of vote tampering. The fiasco with spoiled ballots in Florida during the 2000 election was a good example of how one state can create a great deal of confusion and uproar.

The electronic voting system is raising its own share of fear and mistrust, but maybe this November we won't have to worry about our chads hanging or turning up dimpled or even pregnant.

But maybe I'm confusing that with the Clinton administration.