DES MOINES, Iowa – Kiran Patel (search) is working at a fast-food restaurant this summer to pay for her freshman year of college, but she could have a much bigger job by winter: deciding who wears the title "President of the United States."
The teenager from Cedar Rapids is one of the youngest members ever of the Electoral College (search), elected in April just days after her 18th birthday. She gave out homemade coloring books during a campaign that led her to victory over seven others. Seats in the Electoral College, which elects the president, usually go to longtime party activists.
Patel, who graduated from Kennedy High School earlier this month, acknowledged that some of her colleagues were reluctant to appoint someone so young. But she insisted there was no need to worry.
"I have been in the Democratic Party for over 70 percent of my life and, being 18, my future, at least politically, is within the party," she said. "If I go rogue on them or don't show up, then I've just kind of thrown myself out of the party."
Each state has a certain number of votes in the Electoral College, equal to the size of their congressional delegation. Iowa has seven votes and Patel is one of seven Democratic electors. There also are seven Republican electors.
When voters go to the polls on Nov. 2, they will not be voting directly for President Bush, the Republican, or John Kerry, the Democrat, but rather for the slate of electors for either candidate. Electors will meet Dec. 13 to vote and formally decide who will occupy the Oval Office for the next four years.
There are 538 votes in the Electoral College; it takes 270 to become president.
The system was criticized as unfair and outdated after the disputed 2000 presidential election, in which Democrat Al Gore won the vote of the people but narrowly lost to George W. Bush in the Electoral College by a vote of 271-266.
Most electors are "longtime party regulars," such as state party leaders, campaign activists or state lawmakers, said Michael White, a legal affairs director at the National Archives in Washington, which oversees the Electoral College.
The only official requirement is that electors not be federal employees. They customarily vote for their party nominees, although federal law does not require them to. Some states make it a requirement.
In most states, political parties choose electors at district and state conventions. In some, the governor or party leaders tap longtime party activists for the positions.
It may be impossible to know whether Patel is the youngest elector in history, said White, because his office does not record electors' ages.
But John McCormally, spokesman for the Iowa Democratic Party, attested to her political activism.
"Kiran is definitely a strong Democrat," he said.
In a speech at the April convention, Patel promised to use her position to help interest young people in politics and to emphasize the importance of their vote.
She plans voter registration drives next fall as a student at the University of Iowa, where she will study microbiology and anthropology. She's also organizing one at Taco Bell, where she works the night shift.