POLITICO’s hour-by-hour guide to watching tonight’s returns

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Election Night 2020 is expected to be like any other election night — except in slow-motion.

By now, it’s well-established that a number of battleground states will take days to count a flood of mail ballots. But in other states, a close-to-full tabulation of the votes will proceed in earnest, and Americans watching at home will experience the same network-TV drama that every election night brings.

What should — and shouldn’t — you expect to learn on Tuesday night? Here’s an hour-by-hour guide (all times Eastern) to watching the 2020 election like a pro.

5 p.m.: Head for the exits

Whether it’s the networks that comprise the National Election Pool (ABC News, CBS News, CNN and NBC News), or The Associated Press and Fox News, which have a separate polling partnership for the election, each begins releasing small nuggets about the composition of the electorate and its attitudes beginning at 5 p.m.

Not only are they not allowed to release anything before 5 p.m., representatives from those news organizations with access to the data are typically locked in a room with limited ability to communicate outside until that time. Once they are released from the “embargo room” — known in previous, pre-pandemic elections as the “quarantine room” — they can report back to their bosses, and the news operations begin to adjust their coverage accordingly.

But they still can’t release any state-level estimates until all the polls have closed in that state.

6 p.m.: First results

Parts of: Indiana, Kentucky

Polls close at 6 p.m. in most of Indiana and Kentucky (the parts of those states in the Eastern Time Zone), and now results start rolling in.

Two years ago, the result in Kentucky’s 6th Congressional District was seen as a bellwether for the night — and when Democrat Amy McGrath lost to GOP Rep. Andy Barr, many wondered if the “blue wave” had petered out. That wasn’t the case, and neither party this year is looking to this Lexington-based seat as a sign of things to come.

7 p.m.: And. Here. We. Go.

All of: Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, South Carolina, Vermont, Virginia
Parts of: Alabama, Florida, New Hampshire

The first states will close all their polls at 7 p.m. — and despite warnings about delayed results, there are some places where the bulk of the votes could actually be counted sooner than usual.

Polls close in almost all of Florida, the largest of the core battleground states. And Florida is expected to count fast, especially the millions of early votes that were cast in the run-up to Election Day. Florida is likely to be very closely contested, but these early results will serve as tea leaves for the rest of the night.

Polls also close in Georgia, a burgeoning swing state that doesn’t have a fast-counting reputation like its neighbor to the south — but where most votes are expected to be tallied at some point Tuesday night, since, like Florida, it has been processing early votes for days already.

We’ll also get our first window into the battle for the Senate when polls close in Georgia and South Carolina. Georgia is home to two tight races, though one — a special election for the seat currently held by appointed GOP Sen. Kelly Loeffler — is almost certainly going to be decided in a Jan. 5 runoff.

In South Carolina, GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham faces a stiff challenge from Democrat Jaime Harrison, who raised more money for his campaign in the final months before the election than any other candidate in U.S. history.

7:30 p.m.: A pair of swing states

All of: North Carolina, Ohio and West Virginia
Parts of: New Hampshire

Two more swing states close on the half-hour: North Carolina and Ohio. Both are big electoral prizes that President Donald Trump carried in 2016 — and both are expected to count almost all their votes on Tuesday night. North Carolina’s state elections board said this weekend they believe they will tally 97 percent of the state’s votes by the end of the night, even though absentee ballots can still arrive for another week and be counted as long as they were postmarked by Tuesday.

North Carolina is also home to a critical Senate race: Democrat Cal Cunningham, who admitted an extramarital affair a month before the election, is locked in a tight race with GOP Sen. Thom Tillis.

8 p.m.: Prime time

All of: Alabama, Connecticut, Delaware, D.C., Florida, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee
Parts of: Kansas, Michigan, North Dakota, South Dakota, Texas

Polls will close in all of 16 states and the District of Columbia at 8 p.m. Eastern, including two major Electoral College prizes: Florida and Pennsylvania. A lot of the Florida vote will be in by 8 p.m. — and while few expect an immediate call for one of the two candidates, it might not be too long after that before the networks are able to project whether Trump or Joe Biden has carried its 29 electoral votes.

Pennsylvania is a different story. Elections officials were not allowed to touch any absentee ballots until Tuesday, and it will take them the rest of the week to add them to Pennsylvania’s vote count.

That means that a call in Pennsylvania is unlikely on Tuesday. And because the votes that are tallied will include most in-person votes but few mail ballots, expect Trump to be leading here early Wednesday morning. If the polls are right — they show Biden leading in the state overall, and his supporters are much more likely to vote by mail — Biden would catch and pass Trump as those absentee votes are added beginning on Wednesday and perhaps stretching a few days more.

A host of safe states are also closing right at 8 p.m., and the news networks are likely to call most of them immediately.

Closing almost entirely at 8 p.m. are Michigan and Texas, two very different battleground states. Michigan was home to Trump’s most narrow victory in 2016, while he won Texas by 9 points four years ago. Both are also hosting competitive Senate races: Democrats are defending Sen. Gary Peters’ seat in Michigan, while Republicans are trying to hold Sen. John Cornyn’s seat in Texas.

8:30 p.m.: Little Rock in a big pile

Only one state closes at 8:30: Arkansas, which hasn’t voted Democratic since its favorite son, Bill Clinton, was president.

9 p.m.: The Heartland of the matter

All of: Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, South Dakota, Texas, Wisconsin, Wyoming

A majority of states will be closed by 9 p.m., including five more battlegrounds: Arizona, Michigan, Minnesota, Texas and Wisconsin.

The Rust Belt states aren’t expected to count quickly, as they will be forced to deal with a huge influx of mail ballots without the existing infrastructure to handle them. That means the night could very well end without projections in Michigan and Wisconsin.

Arizona and Texas, however, should count most of their votes on Tuesday night. Texas is known for its quick vote-count, and the laws have changed in Arizona since 2018, when it took nearly a week to finalize Democrat Kyrsten Sinema’s victory over Republican Martha McSally in a key Senate race. (By law, while all the polls close in Arizona at 9 p.m. Eastern, votes can’t be reported publicly until 10 p.m.)

McSally is on the ballot again, having been appointed to fill the state’s other Senate seat. Democrats feel most optimistic about flipping her seat, along with GOP Sen. Cory Gardner’s race in Colorado.

By 9 p.m., we could have enough of the votes tallied in some of the East Coast battleground states, like Florida and North Carolina, either to make projections or see the night trending one way or the other.

10 p.m.: Two smaller battlegrounds

All of: Iowa, Montana, Nevada, Utah
Parts of: Idaho, Oregon

Four states close all their polls at 10 p.m., but they combine for only 21 electoral votes. Iowa and Nevada have been on the fringes of the battleground map this cycle, while Iowa’s Senate race — Democrat Theresa Greenfield is challenging GOP Sen. Joni Ernst — is one of the most important in the country.

Viewers can expect more clarity in the 10 p.m. hour on the uncalled swing states, minus those not expected to count enough of their ballots on Tuesday night. In 2016, The Associated Press called Ohio at 10:36 p.m. and Florida at 10:50 p.m., both for Trump.

11 p.m.: West Coast, last coast

All of: California, Idaho, Oregon, Washington

Four states close at 11 p.m.: Three Democratic states, and one that Trump should carry.

In Democratic landslide elections, like Barack Obama’s 2008 victory, there’s often enough in by 11 p.m. that California’s large electoral-vote haul (55 votes in this race) can put someone over the top immediately.

But even if Biden exceeds Obama’s popular-vote margin from that year, as some polls suggest, it’s unlikely he can win so early in the night with some states taking longer to count their mail ballots.

Four years ago, the 11 p.m. hour brought calls for Trump in Georgia and North Carolina, two critical Sun Belt swing states this year.

In the midnight hour

All of: Hawaii
Parts of: Alaska

All of the Lower 48 states are finished voting by 11 p.m., so the only poll closings after are from the 49th and 50th states to join the union. Alaska hasn’t voted Democratic since 1964, though there are published reports of private polling showing Biden is competitive there. And both parties are fighting over a key Senate seat, currently held by GOP Sen. Dan Sullivan.

By midnight, we should have a good idea of how the night is going: Are the states that are counting more of their votes in rough agreement, making it clearer who is likely to be inaugurated as president next January? Or is the race going to come down to those states slowest to count their mail ballots, meaning a resolution is unlikely on Tuesday night?

1 a.m.: End of the road

All of: Alaska

The final polling places in the United States, in the Aleutian Islands, close at 1 a.m. Eastern Time. But the counting continues.

Four years ago, the AP called Wisconsin for Trump in the 1 a.m. hour, in addition to one of Maine’s four electoral votes, a victory that reflected Trump’s overall strength in rural America.

In wasn’t until the 2 a.m. hour that Pennsylvania, and the presidency, went to Trump. The AP’s news alert went out at 2:29 a.m., and Hillary Clinton called Trump to concede minutes later.

But with a verdict unlikely in Pennsylvania and some other key states until later in the week, it may be a while before election night really ends.

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