Picking a president: In the United States, it’s not just as simple as counting votes in a box. (iStockphoto )

Tuesday is Election Day. As you know, the United States is choosing a president along with members of Congress, and state and local officials. The presidential election is special not only because it determines the most powerful position in government but also because the process is different. And you might be surprised to learn that the person with the most votes isn’t always the winner.

College rules

When voters choose a senator or a school board member, election officials count the votes and declare a winner — usually within a day or so. That’s called a popular vote.

But when voters pick a president and vice president (they run together on what’s called a “ticket”), they do it through a process called the electoral college.

The college is a group of 538 “electors.” Each state has the same number of electors as they have members of Congress. So states with a lot of people have more (California has 55), while states with smaller populations have fewer (Maryland has 10).

Before Election Day, each state’s political parties pick potential electors who will support their candidate. When the voting ends, the ballots are tallied and the candidate who has the most votes in that state typically wins all the spots for electors. In Maine and Nebraska, however, they can give electoral spots to more than one party.

Those electors then gather in December and send an official vote to Congress. (Electors have surprised their political party by voting for a different candidate, but that is rare.) In early January, Congress counts electoral votes from all the states and the District of Columbia. The candidate who has at least 270 electoral votes wins the election. So even though we may know who the next president will be by Wednesday, it won’t be official for about two months.

You might wonder why the Founding Fathers came up with the electoral college. It makes candidates care about voters in states with fewer people. Not many candidates would visit those states if they could win an election by focusing on a few states with a lot of voters.

Close calls

In four elections, the winner was not the candidate who won the popular vote. Most recently, in 2000, Democrat Al Gore received about 540,000 more votes than Republican George W. Bush. But the election hinged on the electoral votes from Florida, where the race was so close that the ballots had to be tallied twice.

The results pointed to Bush as the winner. But when officials discovered problems with some machines counting the ballots, Gore wanted parts of Florida to count them a third time. The U.S. Supreme Court decided that wasn’t fair and there would be no more counting. On December 13, Gore finally conceded that Bush had won — more than a month after the election.

And in 1824, the candidate who won the electoral vote didn’t become president. Andrew Jackson won 99 electoral votes, and John Quincy Adams finished second with 84. But Jackson had only about 38 percent — not a majority — so the House of Representatives had to decide the race.

Adams formed a political alliance with Speaker of the House Henry Clay, who had also been a presidential candidate that year. With Clay’s help, Adams won. He then named Clay his secretary of state. Jackson and his supporters cried foul, calling the deal a “corrupt bargain.” Many Americans agreed. They chose Jackson over Adams in the next election and liked him enough four years later to give him a second term.

Who can vote?

Voting is an important part of a democracy, but it wasn’t something the Founding Fathers included in the Constitution. They couldn’t decide, so they left the matter to the states. That became confusing. Over the years, amendments to the Constitution and laws passed by Congress have addressed the issue. Here are several important years in voting-rights history:

1789: Mostly white men 21 and older who own property elect George Washington as the first president.

1870: The 15th Amendment is adopted. It says no state can stop a citizen from voting based on race or color or the fact that the person was once a slave. Many people, such as Native Americans and some immigrants, however, are not eligible to become citizens. And some states require that voters be able to read or understand the Constitution.

1920: The 19th Amendment gives women the right to vote.

1924: The Indian Citizenship Act declares that all noncitizen Native Americans born in the United States are citizens with the right to vote.

1964: The 24th Amendment says that people can’t be prevented from voting because they can’t pay a poll tax, or fee.

1965: The Voting Rights Act becomes law. It prohibits any election practice that denies the right to vote to citizens on the basis of race.

1971: The 26th Amendment lowers the voting age to 18 — the same age at which men at the time were being drafted to fight in the Vietnam War.