The Electoral College will take center stage in this year's tight race for the White House. Here's a look at how it works:

Q What is the Electoral College?

A It's a process 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. A candidate needs 270 of 538 votes to win.

Q What happens in the 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 vote for president and vice president on separate ballots. That happens Dec. 17 in this election. Finally, Congress counts the votes in a joint session Jan. 6 to make the results official.

Q Does my vote count?

A When a voter casts a ballot for president, the voter actually chooses the 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 popular vote?

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. Electors are often people who political party leaders feel have been dedicated and deserve recognition. Members of Congress are not eligible.

Q How many electors does each state have?

A Each state has the same number of electors as members in its congressional delegation. Highly populated states have more votes. California has the most with 55. Texas (38) is second, followed by New York and Florida, each with 29. Minnesota has 10. Three is the smallest number of electors for any state.

Q How can a candidate lose the popular vote but win the electoral?

A Most states have a winner-takes-all rule, so whichever candidate receives a majority of the popular vote -- a plurality -- takes all of the state's electoral 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.

The last time that happened was 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 votes to Gore's 266 -- after a Supreme Court ruling resulting in awarding Florida's then-25 electoral votes to Bush.