2020 Election Night Guide: What to Watch For


Hundreds of millions of Americans woke up Tuesday morning—if they slept at all—with anxiety over who will win the 2020 U.S. presidential election. On Wednesday, they may very well wake up with just as much anxiety over who did win—again, assuming they fell asleep in the first place.

No matter what happens, it’s likely to be a long night. So to help you make sense of what’s bound to be one of the most unusual Election Days in modern history, TIME has put together an estimate of what we’ll know when on Tuesday night, with an emphasis on what’s most worth paying attention to every 30 minutes.

Our election night viewer’s guide is based in part on the widely varying procedures by which each state will tally votes submitted before Tuesday, which will almost certainly outnumber those cast on Election Day itself. Given the very real possibility that this winds up being only the first day of what could be a long process, we’ll get you to bed before 11 p.m. ET. Just try to avoid that four o’clock coffee.

What to know

As of Monday night, 98 million Americans had cast their ballots in the 2020 election, according to University of Florida Professor Michael McDonald, who has meticulously tallied figures on early votes cast in every state and Washington, D.C. That’s already more than twice the number who voted early four years ago, as the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted millions to vote either by mail or in person ahead of Election Day. Even low estimates project a total turnout of at least 150 million, shattering the 2016 figure of 136.7 million who voted for President.

The tremendous amount of mail-in voting will cause significant delays in reporting. In most states, counting all those early votes involves both a human process of opening envelopes and verifying signatures, and a mechanical step of feeding ballots into optical scanners or other devices. States have different rules governing when these steps are allowed to happen. In North Carolina, for example, officials have been opening and registering valid ballots for weeks. But in the battleground state of Pennsylvania, envelopes weren’t opened at all until in-person voting started at 7 a.m. ET Tuesday.

What follows is an approximate timeline of key Election Day moments, based on deadlines compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures, Ballotpedia.org, NPR, the New York Times and individual state election officials. All times are in eastern.

2020 Election Viewer’s Guide

7:30 p.m. ET

North Carolina, mail-in round

2016: 4,741,564 votes cast for President. Trump victory by 3.6 points
2020: 4,550,963 early votes

Since North Carolina has been counting its horde of mail-in and in-person early votes for weeks, we can expect results shortly after polls close. This will be the first test of the widely-asserted and data-supported view that early votes will generally favor former Vice President Joe Biden by a significant margin. Day-of votes, meanwhile, will likely bend heavily toward U.S. President Donald Trump, whose supporters, polls show, are much more inclined to vote on Tuesday.

Pollsters and forecasters are split or undecided on which way North Carolina will break. Among North Carolina’s early voters, 37.4% are registered Democrats compared to 31.7% Republicans, with a whopping 30.3% who are unaffiliated. Some polls indicate that a small but potentially significant percentage of Republicans in North Carolina plan to vote for Biden, so a strong performance by Democrats among early voters could indicate that the day-of results will draw less from their lead.

8:00 p.m.

Ohio, round one
2016: 5,496,487 votes cast for President. Trump victory by 8.1 points
2020: 2,906,544 early votes

Like North Carolina, Ohio will report its early vote first—within 30 minutes of polls closing at 7:30 p.m., after which the votes cast Tuesday will start to roll in. Ohio doesn’t have party registration, so we don’t have a partisan breakdown. But as in other states, Ohio’s 2.9 million early votes shatter previous records. We can also expect the same punch-counterpunch, with the early numbers favoring Biden while day-of voting leans Trump.

But it’s entirely possible that the results in Ohio could take weeks to resolve. Absentee ballots that are postmarked by Nov. 2 are currently allowed to be counted through the deadline for the official tallies, which are due to the secretary of state on Nov. 18.

8:30 p.m.

Florida, round one
2016: 9,420,039 votes cast for President. Trump victory by 1.2 points
2020: 8,974,896 early votes

Florida’s westernmost polls close at 8 p.m. Because the state has already begun tabulating its 8.7 million early votes, those results should largely be reported within 30 minutes. But as with Ohio, the results from Tuesday’s voting will trickle in between 8 p.m. and 2 a.m. Also like Ohio, a close result could take weeks to resolve.

North Carolina, round two

At 8:30 p.m., North Carolina will begin to report precinct-level results. This will be the first clear test of how deep the partisan divide runs between those who voted early and those who voted Tuesday. We can expect any lead Biden may have assembled to contract. But how quickly it does so, should these expectations hold true, may decide the outcome of the state within the several hours that follow.

9:00 p.m.

Texas
2016: 8,969,226 votes cast for President. Trump victory by 9.0 points
2020: 9,719,101 early votes

As I wrote last week, there’s a very real possibility that Texas goes blue this year (optimistic Democrats have been saying this for years, but there’s real evidence justifying their enthusiasm this time). While Texas officials won’t feed early ballots into the machines until Tuesday morning, they have been preparing the ballots for weeks, so we can expect a fairly rapid influx of results as soon as polls close. Unlike in North Carolina, there won’t be a formal gap between the reporting of early votes and day-of votes, as the Texas Tribune helpfully lays out.

Texas, a state celebrated for its rich diversity, also has a diversity of rules governing when differently sized precincts report their results. The sheer enormity of the 2020 electorate there could delay results until early Wednesday morning, but it’s worth paying attention to Texas as soon as polls close there, given that early and day-of results will roll in at least approximately at the same time.

9:30 p.m.

No deadlines align precisely with this moment. But it is, conveniently, the time when the trio of Rust Belt states that Trump narrowly flipped in 2016—Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, or what I like to call “Pennsylconsigan”—will likely be reporting enough results to offer at least a rough sense of how close things are there. (Should Biden have a steady hand on the till in North Carolina or even Texas, these states may or may not be as relevant as both campaigns have considered them.)

Polls close in Michigan and Wisconsin at 9 p.m. ET. Neither state begun tabulating mail-in ballots until Tuesday morning, so there won’t be a windfall of results on the hour. But these two critical states do expect to announce the bulk of results by early Wednesday morning. Pennsylvania wraps up an hour earlier, but is also tabulating ballots today.

While there may not be a strong argument for waiting until the day of the election to process ballots—besides avoiding any possibility of a leak in early results—these states will report in something resembling a traditional manner. Neither candidate need win all three. By 9:30 p.m., it will be considerably clearer how many of them President Trump needs to win in order to remain viable.

10:00 p.m.

Nevada
2016: 1,125,385 votes cast for President. Clinton victory by 2.4 points
2020: 1,088,775 early votes

Nevada is not the swingiest of states. But it’s the most significant state in the Pacific time zone for the simple reason that it was one of a handful of states that preemptively mailed ballots to all registered voters, no request necessary. Which way it swings compared to 2016 could help answer one of the burning questions of this election: Who does greater turnout benefit?

After that, with a column of West Coast states that reliably go Democratic in anything short of total political upheaval, we will have the best possible sense of whether we’ll know by Wednesday which candidate won the overall election.

Or the Wednesday after that.

And so on.

Write to Chris Wilson at chris.wilson@time.com.



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