Why Tuesday? Why November?

In the 18th century, when America first asked citizens to cast their ballots, its largely rural population needed a couple of days in the saddle to reach a polling place. As Sunday was mainly for church, Monday would not allow enough time to ride to the poll station, so Tuesday became the natural choice for voting. As for November? It made perfect sense for an agrarian society whose members were enjoying the lull between harvest and heavy snowfall [source: Grier].

Selecting Electors

It's presidential election day. You make a selection at your polling place and with your resplendent "I voted" sticker step into the November air, satisfied you've made your wishes known. But what if your vote, the one you thought you cast for a presidential candidate, was actually used to elect someone whose name you don't even know -- who would cast a presidential vote on your behalf?

This may sound bizarre, but this is exactly what takes place during a U.S. presidential election. By voting for a Republican presidential candidate, for example, you are really voting for a member of the Electoral College who is expected -- but not required -- to vote along party lines, too.

The votes of the Electoral College, comprised of 538 electors divvied up by state, elect the president weeks after Americans vote in a presidential election.

State legislatures are responsible for nominating electors. The process can actually differ from state to state. In general, though, the two most common ways are:

  • The elector is nominated by his or her state party committee (perhaps to reward many years of service to the party).
  • The elector campaigns for a spot and the decision is made during a vote held at the state's party convention.

Usually, electors are people who are politically active in their party (be it Democrat, Green, Libertarian, Republican or Independent) or connected to the political arena. This includes political activists, party leaders, elected officials of the state and even people who have personal or political ties to the presidential candidates.

And while the Constitution makes no mention of qualifications that must be met to become an Electoral College member, it does determine an Electoral College member cannot be:

  • a member of Congress
  • a high-ranking U.S. official in a position of "trust or profit," which refers to a member of Congress accepting an appointment to executive office
  • someone who has "engaged in insurrection or rebellion" against the U.S. [source: U.S. National Archives and Records]

So could a member of the electoral college -- whom you've helped elect by casting your presidential vote -- decide to support an opponent instead? Find out in the next section.