US election: What to watch for and when on election night

A final result may not be known for days, but strong indicators could come quite early

Although America goes to the polls on Tuesday, the term “election day” has become something of a misnomer. More than 93 million votes have already been cast in this election, after several states expanded absentee voting options in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

Nonetheless, polls will close on Tuesday evening come what may and the counting will begin. While a final result may not be known for days – or potentially weeks, given that Donald Trump has threatened to legally challenge the result – there may be some results from early states that will indicate how the election will play out.

As it happens, a clutch of important states – Florida, North Carolina, Arizona and Georgia – will be announced relatively early . Florida in particular is crucial. If Joe Biden wins there and combines it with any of the other three, Trump's quest for a second term is all but over. It is highly unlikely that he will pick up sufficient votes elsewhere to reach the target of 270 electoral college votes.

But if Trump wins Florida – and the polls there are extremely tight – we will be in for a long night and it could potentially drag on for weeks.

Success for Trump in the Sunshine State and he still needs to defend almost all the states he won last time, though he could reach the 270 target by winning either Michigan or Pennsylvania. The Trump campaign, however, believes that he could flip Minnesota or Nevada, which would widen the president’s path, though on the other hand Democrats are competitive in states like Georgia, Arizona and Texas.

Similarly, a win for Democrats in Texas – which would constitute a seismic rewriting of the electoral map – would tilt the race significantly in favour of Biden,

Exit polls will still be used in this election, but questions have been raised about their accuracy given than more then 90 million people have already voted. But Edison Research, which carries out exit polls for a pool of US media outlets, says it has modified its methodology and will also interview voters who voted early.

Associated Press has also introduced new systems to take account of early voting but has said it will not call a winner in a state if the race is too close to call.

Here’s what to watch for on Tuesday night:

Midnight (all times Irish)

Georgia is the stand-out state when the first polls close at 7pm eastern time (midnight in Ireland). Trump won the state's 16 electoral votes by 5 percentage points in 2016, but Democrats see an opening, confident that increased voter participation in the Atlanta area could benefit them. Because counties were allowed to start processing absentee ballots once they were received, there should be an early result from the state. Two Senate races are also in play here, though both contests could go to run-offs if no candidate passes the 50 per cent threshold.

12.30am

North Carolina polls close. This state is a toss-up, but it is usually one of the first to declare a result. Early-voting ballots will be reported first, followed by votes cast on election day. The supreme court has allowed absentee ballots to be counted for up to nine days after the election, which suggests that a definitive result could be days away. However, North Carolina is permitted to sort postal ballots before election day, so this will speed up the process.

Polls also close now in the key midwestern state of Ohio, and officials will begin announcing the results of absentee ballots they received half an hour later. The results from election day polling centres will then begin to trickle through. Though the state can continue to accept absentee ballots after election day, these may constitute a small portion of the total votes cast. Ohio has leaned increasingly Republican in recent years, but Democrats believe it may be in play. Biden scheduled a last-minute visit to the state on Monday.

1am

Things get interesting when polls close in Florida, perhaps the most important swing state in this election. With 29 electoral votes, Trump in particular needs to win this state if he has a chance of winning the electoral college. Because Florida allows for the processing of mail-in ballots before election day, it is possible that there could be an early result from the Sunshine State.

Also among the large number of states to close at this time is Pennsylvania, which promises to be one of the most closely-watched of the election, but a final result may take days or even weeks. Pennsylvania significantly expanded its absentee voting options in this election cycle, but the supreme court ruled that the state can continue to accept postal votes until three days after the election, once they have been posted by November 3rd according to the postmark. Further, several counties have said they will not start counting mail-in ballots until the day after the election. Trump has spoken about Pennsylvania's voting system in particular, suggesting he could challenge the result.

2am

Though in the mountain time zone, Arizona's polls close at 7pm local time. It typically reports results early, as it has a long tradition of mail-in voting. Democrats are hoping to flip this Republican-leaning state, boosted by demographic changes in Maricopa County around Phoenix – the fourth most populous county in the country. Democrats are confident of winning a Senate seat too, with astronaut Mark Kelly, husband of former congresswoman Gabby Giffords, leading Republican incumbent Martha McSally in polls.

Michigan polls also close now. The midwestern state – one of the trio of rust-belt states that flipped from Democrat to Republican in 2016 – is a crucial battleground. Trump won here by just 10,700 votes in 2016. But the governor has tried to manage expectations about when a result will be known. While the state allows minimal early ballot processing, officials have said that a final tally may not be known until Friday.

Wisconsin will also close its polls. Although the state will not start counting absentee votes until Wednesday, it will count all other votes through the night, and the governor has indicated that a result could be known on election night or on Wednesday.

Colorado's polls close now too and it typically reports results early, given the high numbers voting by mail. The Senate race here is one to watch, with Republican Cory Gardner facing a challenge from former governor John Hickenlooper.

Texas is the other one to keep an eye on at this time. With 38 electoral college votes, the state will be under scrutiny given the record number of people who voted early. Though typically it leans Republican, Democrats are hoping that demographic changes could help flip the state blue. Given the sheer size of the state, the vote-counting process could take some time, though most absentee votes will begin to be counted on Tuesday.

3am

Nevada closes its polls. The state was won by Hillary Clinton by just two percentage points and there have been signs that Latino voters are less supportive of Biden. For the first time, Nevada has mailed absentee ballots to all registered voters – prompting legal challenges from Republicans. The result is that there will be more absentee ballots to count than usual.

4am

California polls close at 11pm eastern time. The most populous state in the country, California has become reliably Democrat in recent years. It has a long tradition of mail-in voting, and final tallies can take weeks in the state. Late-arriving ballots, which can be accepted weeks after election day, usually favour Democrats.