WASHINGTON (AP) — Americans will probably know who their next president is on Tuesday night or early Wednesday, but the formal process for picking a president actually extends beyond then.
The Electoral College has the ultimate say. Barring recounts or a tie between Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney, the exercise is largely academic.
Members of the Electoral College, known as electors, meet in in state capitols or other designated spots in mid-December. Each party has slates of electors, but the one aligned with the winner of that state's popular vote is empowered to cast separate ballots for president and vice president.
It is typically uneventful, but there have been instances of "faithless" electors where a ballot is cast for someone other than that state's prevailing nominees. The ballots are sent to Washington to be formally counted in the Senate on Jan. 6, though the results are usually known that day.
If Obama and Romney finish the Electoral College process at 269-269 — or no candidate amasses the needed 270 votes because an alternate candidate scores some votes — the 12th Amendment comes into play. Under that scenario, the newly sworn U.S. House elects the president and the Senate the vice president.
Each House delegation gets a single vote. Republicans are likely to hold a majority of state delegations after Tuesday, but there could be intrigue in the unlikely event that several delegations wind up evenly split. If the Senate remains in Democratic hands, there is a possibility that the Romney could be president and Democratic Vice President Joe Biden his No. 2.
Among the most notable elections was 1824, when Democratic-Republican candidate John Quincy Adams lost the popular vote and was behind in the Electoral College tally but still was chosen as president by the House.
Inauguration day is Jan. 20.