Election night magic: How vote is counted so fast and winners projected

Top Line

Election Day is here. Finally. By the end of the night (or maybe not until the wee hours of Wednesday or later), we will likely know who the president is, but until then, it's a long game of hurry up and wait. Election Day is a lot like Christmas Eve; all the presents are wrapped and under the tree, but you can't open them yet.

During the day, the real action is at the polls, where interviewers are conducting exit polls the old-fashioned pen-and-pad way, asking people who they voted for as they leave polling stations, and tallying up the data.

The exit polls provide the first indication of who will win the election, but those results will be under tight lock down until 5 p.m. The exit poll analysts are literally quarantined in a room and restricted from phone and computer use until that magic hour when the second wave of exit poll data will be released. And then, the feast begins.

Tune into in to ABCNews.com on Tuesday, Nov. 6 for livestreaming coverage of Election 2012. Our Election Day show kicks off at noon, and the Election Night event begins at 7 p.m.

The exit polls provide a wealth of information about who voted, ranging from where they voted to whom they voted for to why. But as exciting as that first rush of information is after a long day of fasting, the initial exit poll data is only the tip of the iceberg. A lot of the information will change as the polls begin to close at 7 p.m. EST and the first votes are counted.

As the vote tallies roll in to the ABC Decision Desk, these numbers will be compared to the exit polls, as well as other data, and the state-by-state projections will begin. Once either candidate reaches 270 electoral votes, the winner will be projected. But that moment is not likely to come any time sooner than 11 p.m. EST tonight, and it's possible that, as happened in 2000, there won't be a definitive decision by election night's end!

Watch today's episode of Top Line for more on how today could turn into a very long night.

Join ABC News and Google+ for Election Night Hangouts — let us know who you are HERE.