What to expect on Election Night

Nov 7 2016
See also: Presidential battleground states, 2016
Portal:Presidential Elections


November 7, 2016

This will be an Election Night to remember. As you settle in to watch the returns on television or your computer, here are a few things to look for as the polls close in states across the country and the votes begin to roll in.

The first polls close at 7:00 PM EST in Georgia, Kentucky, Indiana, South Carolina, Vermont, and Virginia. One of the first projections in the presidential race that the television networks are likely to make could be in Kentucky. That’s because the polls in more than half the state close at 6:00 PM EST, and votes from those Kentucky counties are tallied and feed into the network computers. Unlike most other states—where networks rely on exit poll results and pre-election surveys to guide them in whether they’ll make a projection when the polls close—in Kentucky, as well as Indiana, they’ll have a lot of real votes to help inform their decision. Kentucky is a more Republican state and it’s possible that with this extra information, the networks could project a winner at poll closing time who would in all likelihood be the GOP standard bearer, Donald Trump.

If you don’t see an early call for Trump in Kentucky that could be a good sign for Democrat Hillary Clinton: it would suggest she’s doing relatively well in a Republican-leaning state. Indiana, which also leans Republican, is more competitive so don’t expect a 7:00 PM poll closing call there. No one at any of the networks wants to incorrectly project a winner in a state.

Clinton could well get an early call in Vermont, a solidly Democratic state—although the Republican candidate for governor there is running a very strong race. Don’t expect an early call in South Carolina where a relatively large turnout of African-American voters could make the initial returns look more competitive. The two battleground states this year, Georgia and Virginia, that are in that early 7:00 PM round of poll closings are unlikely to be called quickly. Again, the networks will be cautious in making their initial calls because that can also help set the tone and expectations for the evening. If either Clinton or Trump gets a quick call in either Georgia or Virginia, that’s a good sign for their respective campaigns.

Three states have polls that close at 7:30 PM (all times are Eastern for the purposes of this article): North Carolina, Ohio, and West Virginia. Since West Virginia shares some of the demographic characteristics as eastern Kentucky, this may help push a relatively early in West Virginia. North Carolina and Ohio have been two of the most closely contested presidential battlegrounds in this election and the pre-election polls indicate a close race between Clinton and Trump, particularly in North Carolina. While a lot of votes that were cast early in-person and absentee by mail will be tallied quickly—some 61 percent of the votes in the 2012 presidential election were cast this way and it would surprise few people if that number came closer to 70 percent this year—the closeness of this state means it could take a while before we know who’s won the Tarheel State.

Only about a third of Ohio’s 2012 presidential vote was cast absentee and state can take its time tallying Election Day ballots. But one early clue about what’s happening in Ohio could come from the results of Lake County, a suburban outpost outside of Cleveland, where the votes are cast on touch screens at precinct polling stations which can greatly facilitate their counting. Barack Obama carried Lake in 2008, but Mitt Romney won there in 2012. If Clinton wins Lake that could be a signal that she’s poised to do relatively well when the votes are tallied later from the Republican suburban counties around Columbus and Cincinnati where GOP candidates need a big vote to offset the wave of ballots that are traditionally cast for Democrats in Cuyahoga County (Cleveland) and Franklin County (Columbus). Conversely, if Trump carries Lake by a significant margin, that may be a sign that Republican-leaning voters in the suburbs are not abandoning him.

Ohio and North Carolina also have important Senate races in this. Ohio GOP incumbent Rob Portman could get and early call, but the North Carolina race between Republican Sen. Richard Burr and Democratic challenger Deborah Ross is tight and won’t be called quickly.

At 8:00 PM, there is an avalanche of states with poll closings—16 plus the District of Columbia. That’s the largest cache of the evening. This batch includes major battlegrounds like Florida, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania as well as states that are likely to be called right after the polls close. As the clock ticks past 8:00 PM, it’s easy to imagine calls for Trump in Alabama, Oklahoma, and Tennessee, and wins for Clinton in D.C., [[Delaware, and Massachusetts. Other states could tumble into the mix of early calls. If you don’t see these early calls for Trump for Clinton, that could be a troubling indicator for their respective candidacies.

In Florida, look at the returns from Hillsborough County. It’s the only county in the state that voted twice for George W. Bush and twice for Barack Obama. In Pennsylvania, the vote in the four suburban counties around Philadelphia, Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery could be decisive for Clinton. These suburbs have been trending more and more Democratic with almost each presidential election since 1992 and high turnout is good for the party’s candidates. If Trump is doing relatively well here, that’s bodes very well for him. Democrats are relieved that the local transit strike in the region was settled early Monday morning. Only about five percent of the vote in Pennsylvania is cast early or absentee, so most voters in metropolitan Philadelphia will be able to cast ballots on Election Day without having to deal with a nightmare commute.

Maine, which has its polls close at 8:00 PM, is one of two states (the other is Nebraska) that allocate some of their electoral college votes by the results from its congressional districts. So, Maine with a total of four Electoral Votes awards two to the statewide winner and one to the winner in each of the state’s two congressional districts. If Clinton is on course for winning the election, she should capture Maine and that result should be a fairly quick call. Whenever that happens, it’s also likely that the Electoral Vote for the 1st C.D., the more liberal district in the state that is represented by a Democrat in Congress and includes the city of Portland and the state capital of Augusta, would also be awarded to Clinton.

The 2nd C.D. in Maine, where GOP Rep. Bruce Poliquin is in a tight race against Democratic challenger Emily Cain, is more conservative and more rural although it also includes the cities of Lewiston and Bangor. If the electoral vote in this C.D. is given to Clinton, that could be an indicator that Trump is not able to rally the rural vote everywhere for his candidacy.

There are also key Senate races in several of these 8:00 PM states: Florida, Missouri, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania, where Republican incumbents are trying to hold onto their seats. Don’t expect a poll closing call for any of these races, although GOP Sen. Marco Rubio could be the first to make it across the finish line in this mix of races. If the Florida Senate race remains uncalled for a long time that could be an indication that Clinton is running very strongly in Florida and has coattails that are helping to boost Democratic Rep. Patrick Murphy who is challenging Rubio.

Only one state has its polls close at 8:30 PM, Arkansas. Even though this is the state that launched and nurtured the political career of Hillary Clinton’s husband, Bill Clinton, the former president. Notwithstanding those ties, look for a poll closing call for Trump in Arkansas. The state has been trending Republican for several elections.

At 9:00 PM another wave of states, 14, see their polls close. Battlegrounds like Arizona, Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin will start to have tally their votes, but in two very different ways. Returns for the Great Lakes trio will start to dribble in from different counties across the state. None of these states have a particularly large amount of early and absentee vote. In 2012, Michigan had 26 percent, Minnesota had nine percent and Wisconsin had 23 percent. Those totals could climb this year, but they won’t jump vastly.

Arizona and Colorado are different. In Colorado, all the state’s registered voters receive a mail-in ballot. The vast majority of votes are cast this way before Election Day. The state also has some voting centers that allow Coloradans to vote in person. Arizona has early in-person voting and by-mail absentees and a lot of the voters in the states take advantage of that. In 2012, 66 percent of Arizona’s voters cast ballots before Election Day and that number is likely to grow on this year. From a vote-watching perspective, what this means is right after the polls close in Arizona and Colorado you might not see any votes being tallied for a brief time. Then all-of-the-sudden, huge amounts of votes could appear on vote screens and calls could be coming quickly in the Senate races in those states, but you may have to wait a bit for the outcome of the presidential contest.

In nine hour there will be some polling closing calls for both White House hopefuls. Clinton will almost certainly carry New York and its 29 Electoral Votes, but Trump could rack up a number of victories in places like Kansas, Louisiana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming. Democrats had hoped to be competitive in Texas this year, but that’s probably a reach. The Lone Star State is another place with a split time zone and while nearly all of the state’s polls at 8:00 PM (7:00 PM Central Time), a tiny portion of the state around El Paso is in the Mountain Time Zone and closes at 9:00 PM Eastern. That’s when vote totals can be begin to be reported, and huge numbers can quickly be tallied. If the networks can’t quickly call Texas for Trump, that could make for a really interesting evening.

After the easy poll closing calls are made at the nine o’clock hour, the network analysts and decision desk personnel will probably start to circle back to states with earlier poll closing times to see if those states have tallied enough votes, and provided more data to the network computers, to be called. Don’t expect close races in battleground states to be necessarily called at this time, but you could start to see some key results pop before 10:00 PM. Virginia is a state that counts its votes quickly and if the winner in the presidential race there has a four-point margin or so, the call may come in this time period.

Another thing that could happen before 10 o’clock is that the networks will make a projection about which party will control the House of Representatives in the next Congress. Of course, all the House races won’t be called by that time and in many states the polls will still be open. The network decision desks have sophisticated models that are able to project control based on results from races in states where polls have closed and on what they expect to happen in states where voting is still going on. Remember, the vast majority of House races are not competitive. Gerrymandering contributes to this condition. When control of the House is called, it’s usually done with a range or seats that the parties will gain or lose.

At 10:00 PM, polls close in Iowa, Montana, Nevada, and Utah. Iowa and Nevada are presidential battlegrounds and the Silver State also has a key Senate race to fill the seat of retiring Democratic Minority Leader Harry Reid. It’s doubtful we’ll get poll closing calls for these races. Likewise, while the latest polls show Trump asserting a bit of lead in Utah, the presence of independent candidate Evan McMullin, a Mormon who was born in Provo, whose long-shot candidacy is promoted by never-Trump Republicans, could make a quick call for the Beehive State tricky. In the past presidential elections, Utah has been a poll-closing call for the GOP candidate. Trump supporters don’t need to panic if that doesn’t happen this year, because McMullin’s best state is Utah and he could break double-digits there. Throw in Libertarian Gary Johnson and Green Party candidate Jill Stein, and the increase in Democratic-leaning voters who have jobs in the state’s high-tech companies and this makes Utah a more challenging call than usual.

At 11:00 PM, polls close in California, Hawaii, Idaho, [[Oregon, and Washington. (Alaska’s polls close at 1:00 AM on Wednesday, the last state to end Election Day in the country.) Trump is likely to get a poll closing call in Idaho, but with 78 combined Electoral Votes in the other four states (55 coming from California alone) which have been reliably Democratic since the 1988 presidential election, this could be a big hour for Clinton. With poll closing calls for the Democratic nominee almost certain in California and Hawaii (and possibly in Oregon and Washington), this could the moment Clinton goes over the top and is declared president-elect by the networks. Barack Obama was awarded the presidency in 2008 once a poll-closing call in California was made for him.

But if the presidential race is close and Trump has managed to post some wins in key battleground states or they are just still up for grabs at 11:00 PM, it won’t be until early Wednesday morning, at the earliest, that we know the outcome of the presidential election.

It’s also possible that some states aren’t called on Election Night or by Wednesday morning. Late-arriving absentee votes and surges in in-person early voting on the final day of that process in some states can swamp local election officials with ballots that make the final vote tallies problematic in some states. In 2012, with the election called for Obama once Ohio was called around 11:20 PM, the networks begged off calling Florida because the margin between Obama and Mitt Romney was close and there’s always a bit of uncertainty about how many absentee votes remain to be counted in the Sunshine State. Moreover, the 2000 debacle in calling Florida is still seared in the minds on the network decision desks. By Friday, the outstanding votes in Florida were counted and Obama’s slim Election Night margin held up.

This year, if Florida is again tight it will take a long time to call the state. Arizona, which has also faced challenges with the final tally—almost 29 percent of the state’s total votes were not counted on Election Night in 2012, many in heterogeneous Maricopa County—and if the presidential race there is close this time around it may not be called on Election Night. (Romney won the state by nine points in 2012 and with that size of a margin the race could be called by the networks.

Let’s hope we’re not faced with a presidential contest that hinges on the outcome of two states that can’t be called on Election Night. Many Americans probably feel this race has gone on long enough.

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James A. Barnes is a senior writer for Ballotpedia and co-author of the 2016 edition of the Almanac of American Politics.