Interest in the American election is as ever worldwide, which means that people from around the world will be staying up during the night and the day to watch the result come in live. I, and many other Brits, are no exception. So if you are going to be awake all night on the island across the pond as the land of the free chooses its destiny, this is a guide to how that night might go.
As ever, television news from across the United States will try to bring an accurate result before the final votes are counted. This is done on a projections system – once a state’s polls have closed, counters will update a running total of the votes counted throughout the next several hours. Once enough votes have been counted that a given organisation is sure that a candidate will win that state, they will project that state for that candidate. In some states, this happens very quickly, for example California will be added to Joe Biden’s projected electoral college votes almost immediately after their final polls close, as the result can really only go one way there. But for other states, the process can be drawn out over five or six hours, or even longer if there is a technical hitch or the need for a recount. In 2016, the state that pushed Trump over the 270 mark was Wisconsin, which was projected for him at 7:30am GMT, five and a half hours after polls there had closed. However, the poll closing time is a good indicator of when we will start to get a picture of how a given state has voted. So the table at the bottom of this article lists every state’s poll closing time, along with some crucial election data for that state. All times in the table, and in this article, are given in GMT.
Polls close in the first few states. These will be the first states to project as we go into the small hours, and indeed by first light in the UK these states could have actual finalised results. It is unlikely we will see an upset in any of these states, as the only toss-up is Georgia. Even if Trump wins Georgia, if he does not win it by a large margin he is still likely to lose the election overall. And Biden winning Georgia is still well inside prediction ranges, but him doing so would indicate that he is on for a substantial electoral college victory.
Most states close their last polling stations at some point in this hour. Pay particular attention to Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and other Democrat leaning states in that area, as the initial projections could be based only on in person votes, which are likely to be more heavily Republican, meaning that a close race in states such as these could see it projected the wrong way if an organisation attempts an early projection. Indeed, a worrying news story emerged a day ago that Trump will use these incorrect projections to falsely claim victory early on election night, then when the states flip when all the votes are counted, declare that the result is illegitimate and was manipulated after he claimed victory, and use that to try to stay in the White House if he loses in the final tally.
This hour sees the aftermath of polls closing in Texas, which is currently one of the most hotly contested states. Democrat phone banking efforts called more than two million people on 1st November, while the Republicans have resorted to more dastardly, and more violent methods to stop the state turning blue. Texas has been red since 1980, so to save the election, Republicans know that they need to hold onto it – but that is a very uncertain thing currently. As an apparent way to achieve this, Trump supporters swarmed the Biden campaign bus in Texas and tried to run it off the road. Then they found a Biden staffer driving on the highway and crashed into her. Trump praised those who did this on Twitter, saying “these patriots did nothing wrong.” While Republican supporters were violently threatening Democrats, Republican judges were taking a different approach to voter suppression. A partisan judge appealed to the Texan supreme court to have all “curbside” votes discarded, because the voting method, he claimed, was unconstitutional, even though it only exists because of specific provisions under state law. Those who had already voted curbside numbered more than 100,000, and almost all of the voting occurred in heavily Democrat areas of the state. Thankfully, the Texan Supreme Court ruled that no, they would not discard 100,000 votes that had already been legally cast for the Democrats, but their decision was intensely controversial. All of this points to the potential for a very violent election day in Texas, particularly if it is targeted by the “poll watchers” recruited by Donald Trump, whose job it is to intimidate voters outside of polling stations in Democrat areas of marginal states. Texas could be reeling from some unrest by this point in the night.
Projections will be coming in thick and fast, and incorrect projections could begin to be updated. If Trump wants to claim his false premature victory, he will have had to have done it by now, as if he is to lose this is where the numbers will turn against him if they are going to. Indeed, if one candidate is to win by a large margin, by 5am it will be clear who that is. If it is to be close, then the most tense part of the night will still be yet to come.
The final polls close at 6am in Alaska. We could still be waiting for results from close states, and it will be possible that a number of states will be doing recounts by this time (keep an eye on Florida, who has a track record of this; in 2000 there were just 537 votes between the two candidates, and this time around some polls say the difference between the two candidates could be just 0.1%). Over this time period, barring an important recount or other disputed electoral action, we will find out who has won even if it is close. By 10am, we will know either who has won or that we will have to wait several days to find out who will win. We will also likely have full results of the House and Senate races at some point in this window. These are important not only for their own branch of government, but also for the fact that these are the people who decide the next President is if the electoral college is tied. The process by which this occurs is not similar to a normal vote in either chamber, and is complex in the extreme. There are innumerate scenarios in which there could be no decision on who is to become President or Vice President on 20th January, and then the constitutional situation gets very weird, with the possibility of Nancy Pelosi becoming President, at least until agreement among legislators can be reached. This process, of course, could take months, but by 10am we should know whether it is to happen or not.
The Eastern Seaboard wakes up to a very different world to the one they fell asleep in as we approach noon in the UK. These hours could see the beginning of the predicted post-election civil unrest, particularly if we do not know who has won or if the candidate who has won has a very small margin of victory. The chance of unrest is extremely real – real enough for Walmart to temporarily pull all guns and ammunition from sale on 30th October from all of their stores in the United States. The polling company FiveThirtyEight asked Americans how worried they were about civil unrest, and the results were shocking. 83% of Americans are concerned that the election could lead to civil unrest, 68% are concerned about the complete collapse of the political system ushering in an era of lawlessness in the aftermath of the election. The same survey shows unprecedented levels of political engagement, with 83% saying they are interested in the election and 64% saying they are going to stay up overnight to watch the results live. Americans are angry and scared, and almost all of them are very invested in this election, and in a country where almost everyone is armed, the risk of unrest on a scale not seen since the Civil War has never been higher.
Jack Harrison is a political blogger and student at the University of Cambridge. He was the author of the blog Minority 2017 from 2017 to 2019. He can be found on Twitter @JackH1010.