US election guide: what to watch, key times and how it all works

Polls opened on Tuesday morning with an outcome expected by early Wednesday morning

Tuesday is election day in the United States which, depending on who you ask, is somewhere between just another election and the End of Days. Here's our bluffer's guide to the US election.


Unless you've been tuned into the election campaign, you might not know that there are more than two people seeking the presidency. Alongside Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican candidate Donald Trump on many ballot papers are former Governor of New Mexico Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party; Green Party nominee and former physician Jill Stein; and more than 20 others. Between them, the also-rans could take up to 6-7 per cent of the national vote - interesting more for how they could affect support for the big two. There is, though, another way an outsider could directly influence the result of the presidential election. No third-party candidate has claimed a State victory since George Wallace in 1968 - however, Independent candidate Evan McMullin has a fighting chance in his home State of Utah.


American citizens do not directly elect the president, they elect representatives called "electors" who, together, form the "electoral college". Still with us? Based on population size, each State is allotted electoral votes - for example, little Montana has three votes, while California has 55. A candidate claiming the most support in a State collects all that State's electoral votes (apart from Maine and Nebraska). There are 538 electoral votes in total, therefore the winning post is 270.

Still puzzled? Have a gander at our full guide to the US electoral system here:


Some 42 million Americans have already cast their votes in the 37 states that allow early voting in person or by post. That could mean more than 35 per cent of the total electorate will have cast a ballot before election day, according to the Pew Research Center.

For everyone else, 110,000 polling stations opened on Tuesday morning across the United States and will begin to close from 6pm eastern time (11pm in Ireland).

Winning the popular vote will not necessarily secure the White House for either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. Under the electoral college system, which distributes 538 "electors" in proportion to each state's population, the winner is the candidate who can reach a majority (270) of electoral votes. The six states with the most electors are California (55), Texas (38), New York (29), Florida (29), Illinois (20) and Pennsylvania (20). The seven smallest states by population – Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming – have three votes each.

There may be 50 states, but most of them consistently back one party. Southern states such as Alabama and Mississippi are considered guaranteed Republican wins, while California and Massachusetts are safely Democratic. That means the election will be won and lost in 10 competitive swing states: Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Nevada, New Hampshire, Arizona, Virginia, Colorado and Michigan.

With voting under way, strategists and analysts are watching for early signs of turnout in these key states. How long are the queues in white, blue-collar districts in Ohio, where Trump must perform strongly if he is to win? Are Latino voters turning out in sufficiently big numbers in central Florida to push Clinton over the line?

Who will voters meet at polling stations? Apart from the poll workers, voters may expect to see others - and not just their neighbour. Academic and foreign observers will be at some locations to study how well the election is run, while partisan poll watchers may be reviewing sign-in sheets to know which supporters they still need to turn out. None, of course, should disrupt or try to influence the voting process. There has been much controversy about Trump's call for supporters to keep watch on election day at polling stations - and there will be focus on whether people engage in any intimidation inside or outside polling stations. Most States have hotlines available to assist voters who have election- day questions or want to report suspicious activity.

Other elections: Think you're handed too many ballot papers on election day in Ireland? Well, apart from the contest to be the next president and vice-president of the US, elections will be held across the country for 34 Senate seats, 435 seats in the House of Representatives (as well as 6 non-voting delegate seats), 12 State governorships, two territorial governorships, and numerous other state and local elections.


Throughout the day, field workers across the country will interview voters as they emerge from polling stations. By the close of voting, about 85,000 in-person voters and 16,000 early and absentee voters will have answered detailed questions about their vote, the reasons for their decision and their views about key issues in the campaign. Commissioned by a consortium comprising ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox and The Associated Press, the exit poll results will begin to filter into the live TV coverage from 11pm Irish time. It will help to answer some of the questions on which the election will turn. How did college-educated Republican women in Colorado vote? Has the Clinton campaign succeeded in mobilising African-American voters in sufficient numbers in North Carolina? Have the Mormons of Utah turned their back on Donald Trump and opted instead for the little-known former CIA agent Evan McMullin? The TV networks will draw on these insights – the most comprehensive picture of voter attitudes on election day – for their own projections, but they will wait until later in the night, when polling stations in more westerly states close and clearer patterns emerge, to call the election.


At 7pm eastern time (midnight in Ireland), polling stations will close in the first six states: Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, South Carolina, Vermont and Virginia. There are two contests worth watching here. In Virginia, a strong showing from Clinton would reassure pollsters, who have consistently put this swing state in the blue column, and settle nerves in the Democratic camp. Conversely, a narrow winning margin or a victory for Trump would give a big boost to the property magnate. Georgia, a traditional Republican stronghold that last voted for a Democrat in 1992, has grown more diverse since Mitt Romney won there in 2012 and is considered one of Clinton's outside bets. If she wins it, it probably means she is in for a very good night.

At the same time, first polls will close in Florida, whose 29 electoral votes make it the biggest and most valuable battleground. Polls have shown the two candidates neck-and-neck, with Clinton performing strongly in the ethnically-diverse south, Trump scoring strongly in the conservative north and a fierce battle being waged in the swing counties that run in a line from Tampa to Orlando in the centre. If the race is tight, however, don't expect a result from Florida for at least another few hours.

By now, the crowds will have gathered for the candidates' election night parties within a few miles of each other in Manhattan. Clinton has chosen the Jacob K Javits Convention Center, a vast complex with – guess what? – a glass ceiling, while Trump is hosting a more low-key invite-only event at a midtown hotel.


At 7.30pm (12.30am in Ireland), the TV networks will declare results from two key battlegrounds: North Carolina and Ohio. Barack Obama won North Carolina in 2008 but lost it to Romney in 2012, and Trump needs the state's 15 electoral votes to keep open his most likely route to the White House. Although traditionally conservative, North Carolina's large non-white population (about 29 per cent of the state) and significant numbers of white college graduates around the major cities will favour Clinton, but with early voting turnout among African-Americans down on 2012, this will be an important test of Clinton's get-out-the-vote operation.

No Republican has won the White House without Ohio, and the midwestern state has swung for every successful candidate since 1964. The Rust Belt state’s large population of blue-collar whites in the east and the Appalachian southeast may help Trump, who has had the edge over Clinton here in eve-of-election opinion polls. Clinton’s hopes largely rest on the Democratic strongholds around Cleveland and Columbus, but she would also stand to benefit if moderate Republicans in the suburbs, turned off by Trump’s campaign, decided to stay away or vote against him.


By 8pm in New York (1am in Ireland) the declarations will be coming thick and fast. Most are safe Democratic or Republican states, but look out for the hard-fought battleground state of Pennsylvania, where both candidates have campaigned heavily in recent weeks. Clinton has been ahead in the polls and performs strongly in the cities of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, but Trump's protectionist message has resonated in many of the state's declining coal-mining and steel-milling towns. A Trump victory – the first by a Republican since 1988 – could be very costly for Clinton.

Around now, news will begin to emerge from New Hampshire, a relatively small prize (four electoral votes) but one the Democrats see as an important insurance policy against possible Trump wins in states such as Nevada and Iowa.


Clinton has banked on a "firewall" of blue-leaning Midwestern states. Voting in three vital ones – Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin – will end at 9pm New York time (2am in Ireland). Trump has been pushing for a breakthrough in all three in recent days, probing for vulnerabilities in Clinton's strategy by appealing to white working-class voters who could deliver him a surprise victory. If he succeeds the race could be very tight, but a clean sweep for Clinton would keep her on course for victory. At this point we will also find out whether Trump's late push to keep Colorado in play has paid dividends, while Clinton's electoral college vote will shoot up thanks to a win in New York.

Between 2am and 3am, the networks will probably call two big southwestern states: Texas and Arizona. Anything but a comfortable Trump victory in Texas would be a big upset, although Democrats will be watching closely for signs that a strong Hispanic vote could push the state into battleground status in 2020. In Arizona, which has not voted for a Democrat since 1996, Clinton has been running close behind Trump and even overtook him in some polls in late October. Trump must hold on to it to stay in the race.


High turnout among Hispanics in early voting in Nevada was encouraging news for the Clinton camp, suggesting she may have built up a considerable lead on the back of her performance in the Las Vegas area. At about 10pm New York time (3am in Ireland), we will learn whether Trump has managed to counteract that by mobilising his voters in rural counties and in the Reno area.

Any suspense about the outcome in neighbouring Utah would set off alarm bells in the Trump campaign. The Republican nominee is unpopular among Mormons, many of whom have shifted allegiance to the independent Evan McMullin. His success has been one of the most intriguing subplots of the campaign. If he wins, Trump is in trouble.

Meanwhile, a result will likely be declared around now in Iowa, the swing state where Trump has performed best in the polls.


The five states that close at 11pm New York time (4am in Ireland) – California, Hawaii, Idaho, Oregon and Washington – are all reliably Democratic or Republican. But the casting of the final votes in these states is typically the moment when the TV networks officially call the election. In 2012, NBC called it for Obama at 11.12pm. Within six minutes its competitors had all done the same. And an hour later, Mitt Romney was giving his concession speech.

Unless the race is exceptionally tight or no candidate has reached 270 electoral votes – which would leave it to the Republican-controlled House of Representatives to decide who the next president should be – celebrations will by now be well under way at the victor’s party in New York.


what are they and why do they matter? The outcome of the election in swing states (aka battleground states) can dictate the overall result of the election. For example, Donald Trump has no realistic chance of winning the White House without the state of Florida, the largest swing state in the country. Clinton's massive lead among black, Hispanic and other minority voters – who made up a third of the state's voters in the 2012 election – is offset by Trump's strong support among white working-class voters angry with Washington politics and stagnant wages.

Want more info? Here is a complete guide to the key battleground states:


Suffice it to say it will be wall-to-wall on all all major television networks and US media outlets online, not to mention this side of the pond. You will not be stuck. Join our crew right through the night on the US election liveblog for all of the action. Simon Carswell, Washington Correspondent, Rúadhán Mac Cormaic, Foreign Affairs Correspondent will be in place as events unfold. If you can’t manage to stay up on Tuesday night, we will have everything you need on Wednesday morning from news, analysis, comment, reaction to key moments, social media reaction, video clips and our experts first-hand accounts in our US election special podcast.

In the meantime, everything you need is here:


Each State sends two members to the Senate - making a total of 100. Each Senator serves a six-year term, with one third of the seats up for election every two years. Right now, the Republicans are in the majority - 54 to 44 (with two independents who are linked to the Democrats). The problem for the GOP in this election is that 24 of the 34 seats in the election are Republican seats. The vice-president is the ex officio President of the Senate, who can vote only to break a tie. Therefore, if Clinton wins and the Democrats manage to hold their 10 Senate seats (no simple task), they would need just four from the other side to assume control of the House. With the GOP worried about how traditional Republican voters, put off by Trump's campaign, will vote down ballot, Democrats believe it's a realistic target - and are targeting wins in States such as Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Pennsylvania.


If the Senate is our Seanad (and it's not at all really, but bear with us), the House of Representatives is the US Dáil. The lower chamber is made up of 435 members (plus six non-voting seats), each of whom serves a two-year term - so every seat is up for grabs. Unlike the Senate (and the Seanad, so maybe there is a tenuous connection), the seats are apportioned by population - therefore while a State such as Wyoming has just one representative, California has more than 50. Republicans also currently hold the majority in this House, with 246 seats. The Democrats are in control of 186, and are unlikely to net the 32 needed to hold the balance of power.


 The US presidential election has been on a Tuesday for more than 150 years. The law doesn't actually say it should be the first Tuesday in the month, but rather the Tuesday after the first Monday. A decision that causes confusion every once in a while, a bit like the GAA rule that says the All-Ireland hurling final is not on the first Sunday in September (as many presume), but rather the 4th last Sunday of the month.

We’ll leave you with this thought...

Until 1804, the person finishing second in the presidential election automatically became vice-president. If that was still the case, Trump would be Clinton’s vice-president, or Clinton would be Trump’s VP!