ST. PAUL, Minnesota — The official, final votes in the 2012 presidential election were cast Monday by members of the Electoral College, a constitutional formality in President Barack Obama's march to a second term.
The rite playing in state capitols dates back centuries, to a time in early American history when only elected representatives could vote for president. It's now ceremonial, and involves party luminaries and tireless activists carrying out the will of each state's voters. The popular vote from state-to-state dictates whether Democratic or Republican electors get the honor, but the outcome is not in doubt.
Obama is on course to get 332 votes to Republican Mitt Romney's 206, barring extremely rare defectors known as "faithless electors." Electors also were affirming Joe Biden for another term as vice president.
Certified tally sheets are on their way to Washington, where Congress will officially count them on Jan. 6. Obama is to be sworn in a couple of weeks later.
The Constitution's 12th Amendment directs the electors chosen by the states to meet and vote for president and vice president. Each state gets its equivalent in the 435-member House and the 100-member Senate. The District of Columbia gets the other three electors.
With the Electoral College in focus, advocates for revamping the current system seized on the chance to argue for a change guaranteeing the national popular vote winner is elected president. The compact among states would award future electoral votes to the national vote leader regardless of how candidates perform in an individual state. The shift has been approved in nine places and is pending in many others, but it won't take effect unless states possessing a majority of electoral votes ratify it.
The winner of the Electoral College is not necessarily the winner of the national popular vote — George W. Bush famously won the presidency in 2000 by collecting just enough electoral votes, though he lost the popular vote to Al Gore.
Minnesota Rep. Pat Garofalo, a Republican, said an increasingly shrinking number of battleground states has made much of the country irrelevant during presidential elections.
"The most important principle here is the candidate who gets the most votes should win and every vote should be equal," he said.
Around the United States, ceremonies had their share of pomp and electors in red, white and blue ties. Wisconsin's electors donned pin-on buttons with headshots of the president.
In New Hampshire, electors supporting Obama signed their four ballots and then certificates that were sealed in envelopes with wax that has been in the secretary of state's office for more than 70 years.
"It's been a long haul for all of us," said state Secretary of State Bill Gardner, alluding to New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary that sparked intense campaigning there for more than a year.
In a rotunda decked out for the holidays, Minnesota's 10 electors called out the name "Barack Obama" one after another in an exercise meant to avoid a miscue that left the state with an accidental faithless elector in 2004. Former legislator Al Patton, who was also an elector four years ago, acknowledged the historical magnitude was less than in 2008 when Obama was elected the first black president. But Patton said he was still honored to be involved.
"This is what we do to elect the president of the United States," he said. "It's a weighty decision."
Vermont's meeting of three electors was witnessed by a fifth-grade class.
"It was an amazing teachable opportunity," said Cindy Tan, a teacher at Chamberlin School in South Burlington. "It only happens every four years."
Connecticut's electors convened in the state Senate chamber and solemnly remembered the victims of last week's school shooting before carrying out their task.
In Mississippi, which Romney carried comfortably, six men chosen earlier as electors met in a small committee room in the state Capitol and cast their votes for the Republican candidate. Well aware they were doing so in a lost cause, they opted for humor. The state's Republican governor, Phil Bryant, joked that Billy Mounger, an 86-year-old elector, probably wished to vote for Calvin Coolidge, a small-government conservative president in the 1920s.
"I'd like to have Coolidge back," said Mounger.
A bit of controversy erupted in Arizona, where a few electors voiced doubts that Obama was "properly vetted as a legitimate candidate for president" by raising debunked claims about his birth certificate.