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A record-shattering 98 million people have already voted ahead of election day on 3 November, meaning the 2020 presidential election pitting Joe Biden against Donald Trump will be the first in history in which more people vote in advance of election day than on it.
That could make for some election night irregularities: results may come in more quickly than usual in some places while being egregiously delayed in others.
A terrible new coronavirus wave could also slow voting, and counting. And Trump has spent weeks riling up supporters with false accusations of voter fraud and ballot burglary. Unforeseeable actions on election day by Trump or his surrogates could disrupt the process.
US elections officials and media organizations that usually call races on election night say there is a good chance that the winner of the election will not be clear by midnight on Tuesday. That would not be unusual – the count has gone past midnight in three of the last five elections, in 2000, 2004 and 2016.
On the other hand, we might have a result in the presidential race by the end of the night if either candidate achieves decisive wins in key states. And the data from the huge early voter turnout could provide important insights on how the election is unfolding.
Here’s a rough guide to how the night could play out:
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6pm ET (3pm PT, 11pm GMT, 10am AEDT)
The first polls close in most of Indiana and Kentucky (both states straddle time zones). In Indiana, Vigo county on the Illinois border has voted with the winner of the presidential election every time since 1956. But don’t wait on Vigo: Indiana is known for fast cars but slow vote-counting.
Kentucky is expected to give fans of the Republican Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, an opportunity to toast his re-election. But if McConnell does win re-election, will he be returning as majority leader – or will the Democrats win control of the Senate over the course of the night? It’s the biggest prize in this election after the White House.
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7pm ET (4pm PT, midnight GMT, 11am AEDT)
Just like that, things get exciting. The 7pm hour sees most polls close in the titanically important state of Florida, which counts votes quickly – except when it doesn’t. As results begin to come in, look for election wonks (here’s a Twitter list) to begin raising their eyebrows significantly at whether Trump is matching his 2016 margins in this county or that. This is when election night can really start to feel one way or the other, so, expect emotions.
And there will be so much to look at. How is Republican senator and Trump ally Lindsey Graham doing in South Carolina? Do the early returns out of Virginia look good for Trump? Is there any indication of what African American turnout is like in Atlanta – and what is going on with those crazy Georgia Senate races?
Georgia is one of the “safe” Republican states where Biden appeared to be making inroads, according to polls, so results there could indicate whether that was all a Democratic fantasy. But while Georgia polls close at 7pm, don’t expect immediate results, and also don’t expect Trump necessarily to hang on to what could look like an early lead, because Atlanta and her Democrats often report last.
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7.30pm ET (4.30pm PT, 12.30am GMT, 11.30am AEDT)
There is no going back now. As you try to keep an eye on Florida, prepare for a bunch of returns out of North Carolina, which also counts its early ballots quickly and tends to report them first. Be warned: a lot of Democrats voted early in North Carolina, as elsewhere, and what might look like an early lead for Biden in the state could deflate like a cheap beach ball. North Carolina is a place where Democrats could get really greedy, wanting not only an upset victory in the presidential race, but a flipped Senate seat, with Democrat Cal Cunningham taking on Republican incumbent Thom Tillis. Or Trump might just repeat his 2016 victory here and carry Tillis on his coattails, causing a barely perceptible upturn in the grin on McConnell’s face over in Kentucky.
Also: Ohio. Wistful Democrats remember when this state used to be in play in presidential elections, and over the course of 2020 some of those old sparks have begun once again to glow. A Trump loss here would be a total disaster for him. But don’t expect any kind of simple early result. A Biden lead in early voting – Ohio has weeks to process early ballots and is expected to report them promptly – could succumb to a Trump surge, and then everyone could end up staring at Cleveland, whose slowly reported votes could make the race look tighter and tighter. This is the drama you came for, enjoy.
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8pm ET (5pm PT, 1am GMT, 12pm AEDT)
Find an armrest and grip it. By now, a lot in fact will be happening, and some of the historic contours of the race will be heaving into view. The challenge will be to recognize them.
And new results will be coming in. Two states, Michigan and Texas, will close some polling sites, with the rest closing at 9pm. If Biden looks close in Texas – [did we just type that?] – hello, history. Watch the Senate race in Michigan too, where the Democratic incumbent, Gary Peters, could be in trouble. Speaking of the Senate – does endangered Democrat Doug Jones have a shot of holding his seat in Alabama? And is Republican incumbent Susan Collins finally losing Maine? A Collins loss would catapult Democrats toward their dream of a Senate majority, and might even erase that grin over in Kentucky.
And then there’s Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania closes its polls at 8pm. But the election result in Pennsylvania will not be known at 8pm. In fact, it’s very possible that the election result in Pennsylvania will not be known for days. That’s because Philadelphia, the state’s biggest city, with Democrats coming out of its ears, could take days to count its mail-in ballots, according to officials there.
The slow count in Pennsylvania is the key to one of the most plausible and alarming scenarios for an election night meltdown, in which Trump takes advantage of a “red mirage” in the state to declare victory, in an election Biden is later revealed to have won. Here is an interactive explainer about how that all might play out.
Keep an eye on Pennsylvania, but don’t hold your breath.
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9pm ET (6pm PT, 2am GMT, 1pm AEDT)
If to this point you have failed to get any kind of psychoactive kick out of election night, it is over this next hour, we predict, that the power of democracy will start to kick in.
We’ll be looking backwards, at Florida, at North Carolina, at Georgia, at Ohio. But then we will turn around and wham – Arizona, which is accustomed to early voting and counts its votes quickly, will hit us with some results. Be aware that in the past, the early result out of Arizona has looked more Republican than the final result. The Democrats are counting on a Senate pickup here with candidate Mark Kelly, who has actually ridden rockets into space.
(Savor for a moment the fact that Arizona flipping to Biden, with Trump holding Pennsylvania, is one of the simplest ways the race could end in a 269-269 electoral college tie.)
Then change channels to Colorado, where we can expect an early result. The Democrats are depending on a Senate pickup here too. In New Mexico, can Trump keep it closer than the eight points by which he trailed Hillary Clinton in 2016? And zero in on Omaha, Nebraska, where Biden hopes to pick up one electoral college vote in a really red state.
At last, there’s Wisconsin. Democracy is pretty much broken in Wisconsin, with interminable voting lines and shameful Republican acts to stop Democratic and minority voters from casting ballots. Look for an early strong result for the Republican side out of the well-heeled Milwaukee suburbs, where voting actually works. The city of Milwaukee will take longer.
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10pm ET (7pm PT, 3am GMT, 2pm AEDT)
We have no idea what kind of action will be in the rear-view mirror at this point – maybe we already sense a winner? – but the states coming up are plainly visible: Utah, where Trump’s margin will be of interest; Nevada, where it looks like Biden could have a surprisingly difficult race on his hands; and Iowa.
The results out of Iowa ought to be handled with tongs. Like Ohio, it used to be in play for Democrats, and some wonder whether it might not return to the blue fold in 2020. Such a result would betoken a disastrous night for Trump, and it could well be a fantasy.
But what does not look like a total fantasy is an upset of the Republican senatorial incumbent in Iowa, Joni Ernst, whose loss would be a very strong boost for the Democratic designs on the Senate. But be warned: Ernst trailed in early results out of Iowa in 2014, only to come from behind and win. So don’t make plans to go to bed at 11pm ET knowing who won in Iowa. That would be nuts!
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11pm ET (8pm PT, 4am GMT, 3pm AEDT)
The polls close out west – in California, Oregon and Washington (and Hawaii). If the presidential race is not close, the closure of polls in these states will produce a definitive call of the race.
It’s not realistic to hope that the 2020 annus horribilis might draw to an end with a clean-cut result in the presidential race on the night of the election … and yet.
Consider this: in 2008, Fox News called the presidential race for Barack Obama at 11pm sharp. In 2012, the Associated Press declared Obama the victor at 11:38pm ET. Even in 2016, when the race between Trump and Clinton was too close to call on election night, the Associated Press made the call for Trump on 2:29am ET on Wednesday.\
The writing might be on the wall at this point. Or something unusually haywire might have happened. Or the whole election story might be revolving around Philadelphia like a drowning insect circling a drain.
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1am ET (10pm PT, 6am GMT, 5pm AEDT)
At this late hour on the east coast, if you are still awake, it is probably not because you wonder how the election came out in Alaska. (Or maybe you are just waking up in London? If you actually live in Alaska, please drop us a line about what’s happening there.)
By this time, wherever you live, the night has revealed some big secrets, and you now are mulling what it could mean for the country, for your family, for yourself, for tomorrow. Good night and good luck.