U.S. V.P. Dick Cheney (R) hands the Electoral College ballot certificate from Ohio to Rep. Robert Brady (D-PA) during the counting of electoral votes on Jan. 8, 2009 which certified Barack Obama as the winner of the 2008 presidential election.

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When you hear the term "Electoral College" bandied about, what comes to mind? An institute of higher learning? A behind-the-scenes vote-tallying process?

Actually, both these ideas are off the mark. But your confusion isn't. Many Americans don't really understand how an Electoral College works -- or why we have one in the first place.

The Electoral College exists to elect the president and vice president of the United States. And therein lies the rub. What about your vote -- and the vote of millions of other Americans -- for a presidential candidate? Turns out, you're not actually voting for the next leader of the free world. You're casting a ballot for members of the Electoral College whose names probably don't appear on the ballot at all.

The idea for an Electoral College originated in 1787, the same year the Constitution was written. In Article II, section 1 of the Constitution, it spells out the Electoral College framework, "Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector."

In short, the legislature selected electors, who in turn elected a president and vice president. So where did that leave the American people? In the early days of the Electoral College, they didn't seem to have much of a voice. Fortunately, today, members of the Electoral College are no longer appointed by the legislature, but are voted on by the American public as they cast their votes for presidential candidates. However, so little is known about Electoral College nominees -- or the Electoral College process in general -- that on Election Day, most Americans believe they are casting their votes for president. In reality, they're voting for unnamed electors who will cast the deciding votes in the presidential race [source: History].