As Americans cast their ballots, the complex U.S. electoral system that could see a candidate win the popular vote -- but lose the White House -- has been thrust into the spotlight.  

In the countdown to election day, much of the attention has shifted to the U.S. electoral college – a system of voting established by the founders of the U.S. Constitution.

Many outside observers of U.S. politics may not realize that Americans do not vote directly for a president. Instead, they vote for chosen officials known as electors, who in turn vote for a presidential ticket.

It’s a very different process from a Canadian federal election, in which voters choose a Member of Parliament to represent them in the House of Commons, putting in power the party with the most seats.

Who are the electors and how does the electoral college work?

Electors may be state-elected officials, party leaders or people who are closely affiliated with a presidential candidate. Depending on the state, electors can be nominated at a party convention or by a vote of the party’s central committee. The number of electors is proportional to each state’s population, so the country’s most populous state, California, gets 55 electoral votes while smaller states like Wyoming and Delaware get only three electoral votes each.

The electoral college currently has 538 electors. A candidate needs 270 electoral votes to win the presidency.

How is the president elected?

Almost every state awards its electoral votes to the statewide winner. Maine and Nebraska are the exceptions, where two electoral votes are given to the overall winner and the rest are allocated by congressional district.

In each party’s strongholds, the process is largely irrelevant. States like California and New York are expected to go to the Democratic candidate while Texas and Alabama, for example, are staunchly Republican. 

But every ballot counts in swing states like Ohio and Florida, where voters can be swayed on key issues and shifting demographics can turn a blue state red and vice versa. Both Romney and Obama have spent a great deal of time and resources on hotly contested battlegrounds, which also include Colorado, Iowa, Wisconsin, Virginia and New Hampshire.

After voters cast their ballots, electors typically meet in December in their respective states to formally vote for president and vice president. Those ballots are officially tallied in early January and the president is sworn in on Jan. 20.

Can a candidate win the popular vote but still lose the election?

Yes. It happened to Democratic candidate Al Gore in 2000, who had a slight advantage over Texas Governor George W. Bush in the popular vote, but came up short with 266 electoral votes compared to Bush’s 271. Florida’s 25 electoral votes went to Bush after a controversial recount and the involvement of the U.S. Supreme Court.

If neither candidate gets a majority of electoral college votes, the House of Representatives elects the president.

Some last-minute polls released over the weekend suggested that Obama is on the road to win the necessary 270 electoral college votes, with narrow victories in several swing states. But Romney’s campaign said its own figures suggested the opposite. For weeks, the two candidates were in a statistical tie, according to various surveys.

Four new Ohio polls, released on Monday, indicated that Obama has a slight edge over Romney in the crucial state. No Republican has entered the White House without winning in Ohio.

Some of the surveys suggested that Obama’s response to Hurricane Sandy, which devastated parts of New Jersey and New York, gave him the necessary boost ahead of election day. But the struggling U.S. economy remains one of the president’s biggest obstacles.

No president since Franklin D. Roosevelt has been able to win a second term while the unemployment rate was 7.4 per cent.

With files from The Canadian Press