Presidential election 2020: Here’s what to know for election night

Election guide
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The 2020 election has been called many things: extraordinary, bizarre, unprecedented. In some ways, it’s all true, though the election is still being held on the first Tuesday of November, and a Republican (President Donald Trump) or Democrat (former Vice President Joe Biden) will win it.

What’s different this year is that the COVID-19 pandemic has sparked an unmatched shift to early voting, by mail or otherwise, and rising expectations that days or weeks might pass before the outcome is known. And while many Americans have already cast their ballot, millions more will vote on Election Day.

Here’s what to know as we head into Nov. 3., which will surely be a long day — and likely a long night.

What time do the polls close?

The earliest polls in the U.S. close at 4 p.m. PT, while the last ones — in Alaska — close at 10 p.m. PT.

What time do the polls open and close in California?

On Election Day, the polls open at 7 a.m. and close at 8 p.m. in the Golden State.

When do the polls close in key battleground states?

There are 12 key states widely considered to be the ones that could tip the balance in either presidential candidate’s favor on the path to 270 Electoral College votes.

Here are when the polls close in those battleground states, as well as how many electoral votes are up for grabs:

  • 7 p.m. local time / 4 p.m. PT  Georgia (16 votes) and most of Florida (29 votes total)
  • 7:30 p.m. local time / 4:30 p.m. PT — Ohio (18 votes) and North Carolina (15 votes)
  • 7 p.m. local time / 5 p.m. PT — Florida’s western panhandle (29 votes total)
  • 8 p.m. local time / 5 p.m. PT — Pennsylvania (20 votes), most of Michigan (16 votes total)
  • 8 p.m. local time / 6 p.m. PT — part of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (16 votes total), Minnesota (10 votes), Wisconsin (10 votes)
  • 7 p.m. local time / 6 p.m. PT — Arizona (11 votes), Texas (38 votes)
  • 10 p.m. local time / 7 p.m. PT — Iowa (6 votes)
  • 7 p.m. local time / 8 p.m. PT — Nevada (6 votes)

Will we know the winner of the presidential race on election night?

There is much uncertainty over whether we’ll know the winner of the presidential election before Nov. 4 dawns. Absentee voting amid the coronavirus pandemic has changed the vote-counting timeline, and there aren’t uniform practices for counting those ballots. That makes it difficult to predict when certain key battlegrounds, much less a national result, could be called.

For example, Pennsylvania and Michigan — battlegrounds Trump won by less than 1 percentage point in 2016 — aren’t expected to have vote totals for days. Florida and North Carolina, meanwhile, began processing early ballots ahead of time, with officials there forecasting earlier unofficial returns. But those two Southern states also could have razor-thin margins.

Early returns, meanwhile, could show divergent results. Biden is expected to lead comfortably among early voters, for example. Trump is likely to counter with a lead among Election Day voters. Depending on which counties report which batch of votes first, perennially close states could tempt eager partisans to reach conclusions that aren’t necessarily accurate.

What is the ‘red mirage’ scenario?

Because of the way ballots will be counted by different states, the final vote tally could look dramatically different from the early returns — especially if Democrats look to be struggling.

The so-called red mirage scenario would show Trump having a good night based on the votes cast in person on Tuesday. But pivotal states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin aren’t expected to count all their mail ballots, the voting method preferred by many Democrats, until after in-person votes are counted.

That raises the likelihood that Republicans will look to be having a stronger showing earlier in the night than they will once all the votes are in.

What are some scenarios where the presidential race could be called on election night?

Not all battleground states are slow-counting states. So if several key states release their results promptly, one candidate may have a majority of the electoral vote — even without knowing who won in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

That becomes more likely if the races in those states are not close.

It’s a scenario that puts a lot of eyes on Florida. That state allows its election offices to process mail ballots 22 days before the election. It’s also the biggest swing state. As long as the race isn’t too close — a big “if” in a place famous for tight races — there could be a close-to-complete count by midnight. And if Trump loses Florida, it will be very difficult for him to reach the 270 electoral votes he needs to defeat Biden.

Two other Southern battlegrounds — North Carolina and Georgia — also can begin processing mail ballots early. They are both considered critical states for Trump. However, unlike Florida, neither state has a record of handling a large number of mail ballots. It’s unclear how quickly they will count those votes.

Finally, two Midwestern states — Iowa and Ohio — also allow for early processing of mail ballots. Trump won both states handily in 2016, but Democrats believe Biden is competitive there. Results in those two states on election night could give hints about what lies ahead in the critical Rust Belt states that take longer to count.

Here’s a look at the most likely roads to the White House

Nearly 2.9 million more people voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, but she still lost. Trump won because he took the Electoral College.

This is where the magic number comes into play. To win the White House, a candidate must win at least 270 electoral votes. That’s a majority of the 538 that are up for grabs in the 50 states.

Joe Biden

Biden’s campaign is laser-focused on the states in the Midwest and those close by that Trump flipped in 2016 — Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. He’s also making a big play for Arizona, a state that hasn’t backed a Democratic presidential candidate since 1996. Biden is also redoubling his focus on Florida, the biggest prize among the perennial battlegrounds and a state that would virtually block Trump’s reelection if it swings Democratic.

Donald Trump

Trump has several paths to 270, but his best route hinges on winning Florida and Pennsylvania. If he wins both states and holds onto North Carolina and Arizona — which he narrowly carried in 2016, and also Georgia and Ohio, which he won in 2016 but are now competitive — he will win. With 29 electoral votes, Florida is arguably the most crucial state for Trump. A loss there would make it nearly impossible for him to retain the White House.

What are some wrinkles that could delay the vote count?

The main reason we may not see a winner on election night is that many states have made it easier to request a mail ballot amid the COVID-19 pandemic and concerns about crowded polling places. But mail ballots generally require more time to process than ballots that are cast in person.

Some states with extensive experience using mail-in ballots have adjusted for those extra steps, while others made a conscious decision to not count mail-in ballots prior to Election Day. As a result, it could take days to tally enough ballots to project a winner.

And here’s another wrinkle that could delay the naming of a winner: In some key states, mail-in ballots can come in several days after Election Day and still be counted, as long as they are postmarked by then.

For example, mail-in ballots from Nevada voters are not due until Nov. 10 if postmarked by Election Day. In North Carolina, mail-in ballots are not due until Nov. 12 if postmarked by Election Day.

There could also be legal challenges.

Polling indicates that a majority of Trump’s supporters plan to cast their ballot on Election Day, while more than half of Biden’s backers plan to vote by mail. Expect the Trump campaign’s legal team to challenge the validity of many mail-in ballots cast in critical battleground states such as Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Winning the Electoral College — but losing the popular vote

Candidates have lost the popular vote but won the presidency just five times in U.S. history — most recently in 2000 and 2016.

2000: Republican George W. Bush lost the popular vote to Democrat Al Gore by more than 500,000 votes. But the Electoral College vote was tight, and it all came down to Florida, where a recount devolved into disputes over the markings on individual ballots. On Dec. 12, the U.S. Supreme Court stopped the recount with Bush ahead in Florida, giving the election to the former Texas governor. Bush won 271 electoral votes, Gore 266.

2016: Trump won the Electoral College, 304 electoral votes to Hillary Clinton’s 227 — but lost the popular count by 2.8 million votes. Though the electorate has of course grown over the years, Trump lost the popular vote by a greater margin than any other president.

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