What will we know tonight and when will we know it? Check out our timeline on what to expect on election night.
What will we know tonight and when will we know it? Check out our timeline on what to expect on election night. (Photo by Brittany Murray/MediaNews Group/Long Beach Press-Telegram via Getty Images)

To help you make sense of all of the information out there, we’re breaking down what you can expect (and when) in this year’s historic election.

Election Day is finally here. Now we hurry up—and wait. That’s because results won’t start coming out until after polls start closing tonight, which begins at 6 p.m. EST and lasts until Alaska closes its last polls at 1 a.m. EST. And those totals won’t necessarily include a backlog of mail-in ballots in several states.

Before the results come out, though, Americans will hear about lots of other things as the country anxiously awaits the results of the election: from pure speculation to exit poll numbers and beyond. 

Below, we explain what everything is—from early vote totals to exit polls—and when to expect it tonight.

6 A.M. EST: Polls Open in the East

Polls begin to open on the East Coast. But this election is unlike any other in the modern era—100 million Americans have already cast their votes, either by mail or in-person during early voting. That’s a whopping 72% of the 138 million Americans who voted in 2016.

These high early vote numbers means there is a lot of data out there about how many people have voted. In the states that track party registration data, that information includes how many Democrats voted versus Republicans and independents. 

Determining what that means for actual results is notoriously hard, though, and especially so during an unprecedented global health pandemic. These numbers can show enthusiasm, but at the end of the day, take them with a grain of salt. They aren’t actual results yet.

Election Day: Millions of Americans Cast Ballots

There are thousands of reporters on the ground across the country covering long lines and, potentially, voter intimidation. That includes journalist with COURIER’s sister sites in North Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Florida, Puerto Rico, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Arizona.

While voter intimidation does occur, incidents are the exception rather than the rule. In 2018, the Pew Research Center found that 81% of Americans said elections would be run and administered “somewhat well” or “very well.” But after President Donald Trump’s frequent and false attacks on the veracity of mail-in voting, that number dropped to 62% in 2020. 

Trump’s lies about voting doesn’t actually make voting riskier. In fact, the vast majority of Americans who have already voted have not experienced voter intimidation, though isolated incidents have certainly occurred.

5-7 P.M. EST: Polls Begin Closing in the East and Some Exit Polling Information Is Released

Polls will start closing soon on the East Coast. Several networks will likely start releasing exit poll data around this time as well. So how are exit polls captured? Major news outlets band together to pay for a massive exit poll for each presidential election, where voters are surveyed as they leave their polling place on Election Day. The data is collected throughout the day and then starts to be released around 5 p.m. EST.

This data is a much better approximation of actual voting results than the party identification numbers of early voters. People are directly asked who they voted for, and pollsters can be confident that the people they are talking to have actually voted. 

This year, though, that comes with a huge caveat that makes interpreting the exit polls much harder. The unprecedented number of people voting by mail or voting early this year makes the exit poll process much more difficult. While the research company conducting the poll has interviewed people who voted by mail or early on the phone, it’s harder to find voters that way and offers less of a guarantee that they actually voted.

Exit polls ask voters a mix of questions. Those include who the voter is, who they voted for, and how they are feeling (i.e. are they better or worse off than four years ago?). News networks tend to release the softer “feelings” data and demographic information earlier in the night, to not skew turnout in states on the West Coast that are still voting.

8 P.M. EST: Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Georgia Polls Close

By now, a large group of state polls have closed, including battlegrounds like Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Georgia. While state officials won’t certify results for days or weeks, news networks rely on early results and knowledge of how specific districts or regions have voted in the past to project who will win a state. 

Florida’s results should be released relatively quickly. That’s because the state is used to handling mail-in ballots and has been able to process those ballots early. On the flip side, states like Pennsylvania can’t start counting absentee ballots until Election Day, meaning some counties in the state will have to count ballots for several days to report preliminary results.

The bigger the win, the sooner networks can make a projection that one candidate or another has won a state. If the margins are close, that means the projections will be delayed—and there will be a much bigger focus on the exit poll data, which is updated as the night goes on.

9 P.M. EST: Texas, Arizona, and Colorado Polls Close

The second big group of state polls close, including Texas, Arizona, and Colorado. Texas is another state that is expected to report ballots relatively quickly on the night of the election. If Democratic nominee Joe Biden wins Texas at this point, President Trump’s path to reelection becomes incredibly difficult. 

11 P.M. EST: West Coast Polls Close—If There’s a Landslide, We May Know a Projected Winner

The last big group of state polls close, including California. At this point in the night, a landslide election for either candidate could become clear. That was the case for both of President Barack Obama’s elections, which were called by CNN at 11 p.m. EST in 2008 and 11:18 p.m. EST in 2012.

12 A.M. and Beyond: Ballot Counting Will Continue All Night, Results Could Come Late

Of course, many other election winners weren’t projected until the wee hours of the morning (or weeks later). Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton in 2016 was projected by CNN at 2:47 a.m. EST. In 2004 it took a full day to declare President George W. Bush’s reelection. Most notoriously, in 2000 the race between George W. Bush and Al Gore became a month-long battle that went to the Supreme Court.

We may not know everything by Wednesday, but take some comfort in knowing that—at the very least—we’ll know a lot more than we know now.