Americans elect the President and Vice-president through a method of indirect popular election. On November 6, 2012, voters will cast their ballots for a presidential candidate. However, votes actually count towards a group of electors who pledge to vote for a specific candidate when the Electoral College meets in December. The "Electoral College" is the unofficial term coined in the 1800s for the group of citizens selected by the people to cast votes for President and Vice President.
The presidential/vice-presidential pair who wins the popular vote in any given state receives all1 of the state's number of Electoral College votes. In the end, the winner of the race is the candidate who receives a majority (270) of the 538 Electoral College votes. The results of the 2012 election won't be official until the President of the Senate counts the votes out loud at a special joint session of Congress held on January 6, 2013.
A More Detailed Description:
The 12th Amendment to the United States Constitution outlines the process for electing the President of the United States. This indirect method of popular election is known as the Electoral College. While some state laws regarding this process differ, the general method for electing the president is listed below.
A faithless elector is one who casts an electoral vote for someone other than whom they have pledged to elect. On 158 occasions, electors have cast their votes for president or vice president in a different manner than that prescribed by the legislature of the state they represent. Of those, 71 votes were changed because the original candidate died before the elector was able to cast a vote. Two votes were not cast at all when electors chose to abstain from casting their electoral vote for any candidate. The remaining 85 were changed by the elector's personal interest or perhaps by accident. Usually, the faithless electors act alone.
There are laws to punish faithless electors in 24 states. While no faithless elector has ever been punished, the constitutionality of state pledge laws was brought before the Supreme Court in 1952 (Ray v. Blair, 343 U.S. 214). The court ruled in favor of state laws requiring electors to pledge to vote for the winning candidate, as well as remove electors who refuse to pledge. As stated in the ruling, electors are acting as a function of the state, not the federal government. Therefore, states have the right to govern electors. The constitutionality of state laws punishing electors for actually casting a faithless vote, rather than refusing to pledge, has never been decided by the Supreme Court. In any event, a state may only punish a faithless elector after-the-fact; it has no power to change their vote.Source
U.S. Electoral College 2012 - List Of States And Votes
Below is the number of electoral votes each state will receive for the 2012 and 2016 presidential elections. Changes to the electoral totals from the 2008 election are based on 2010 census information.Total: 538; Majority Needed to Elect: 270
1. The exceptions are Maine and Nebraska, where a proportional method for allocating votes is used.