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More than 48 million people cast ballots for George Bush for president six weeks ago, but the 538 who really matter will vote Monday.

That's when the Electoral College meets in an antiquated and much maligned constitutional ritual that has survived for two centuries.Expect no surprise here. Bush should defeat Democrat Michael Dukakis by 426 votes to 112 votes - give or take a "faithless elector."

In state capitals around the nation on Monday, the electors will meet to cast their votes and sign half a dozen documents swearing they've done their duty.

This sets the stage for the final ceremony in a joint session of Congress on Jan. 4, when Vice President George Bush, as president of the Senate, will open the ballots and anounce the results - and formally declare himself the president-elect.

The political parties in each state pick prospective electors - one for each congressman and senator the state has.

While voters on Nov. 8 may have thought they were voting for one of the presidential candidates, they really were casting their ballots for the Republican or Democratic slate of electors in their state. The party that wins a state sends its electors to the meeting set by law for Monday.

Among those who have the honor and duty are some of the vice president's relatives: son Neil Bush, in Colorado and brother Prescott S. Bush Jr. in Connecticut.

"I think it was a nice honor, to get to cast a vote for my dad," Neil Bush, a Denver oilman, said. "It'll be nice to be a small footnote in history."

Among others with the duty are Bush's designated White House chief of staff, New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu. Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, who seconded Bush's nomination at the Republican National Convention, is a Pennsylvania elector. But most are state party workers or insiders rewarded for their labors, and state officeholders, such as California Gov. George Deukmejian and Alabama Gov. Guy Hunt.

In the 10 states and the District of Columbia that were carried by Michael Dukakis, Democratic electors will vote.

Electors are expected to vote for their party's presidential nominee and vice presidential nominee. But in this unique American system, they don't have to - and therein lies the potential for mischief or intrigue.

In nearly 200 years, eight electors have broken their pledge and voted for someone else.

The lure of making some dramatic point, and gaining widespread if fleeting notice, endures. A Minnesota elector, Bill Davis, treasurer of the state Democratic-Farm-Labor Party, has said he may cast a symbolic vote for Jesse Jackson for vice president instead of Democratic Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, the party's nominee.

And this year, with the furor over Dan Quayle's selection as Bush's Republican vice presidential running mate still fresh in memory, some electors have been getting letters urging them to "Dump Quayle" and cast vice presidential ballots for someone else.

"Dan Quayle does not have to be the next vice president. Just ask the framers of the Constitution, who devised the Electoral College precisely to deal with the current predicament," law journalist David A. Kaplan and New York lawyer Gary S. Simon wrote in a New York Times opinion-page article last month.

Such a case for rests on the argument that the founding fathers envisioned the electors as truly deliberative. Of course, the founding fathers didn't know about the emergence of the two dominant parties, or a nation attuned to instantaneous communication, when they added the provision during the constitutional convention of 1787 in Philadelphia. They saw it as an elite group of wise men to be trusted with the decision.

In fact, about half the states now have laws requiring the electors to vote as pledged. But experts say the laws might not pass a constitutional test and may be unenforceable.

In the past, some have proposed scrapping the entire Electoral College system and provide for direct election. A middle-ground proposal is to keep the electoral system but do away with electors - that is, award electoral votes automatically.