It is entirely possible that a winner between Joe Biden and Donald Trump will not be known on election night. JABIN BOTSFORD/THE WASHINGTON POST VIA GETTY IMAGES
While Election Day is Tuesday November 3 in the US, this falls on Wednesday November 4 in Australia, with local televised coverage beginning from 6am AEDT through to the evening across various networks.
However, it’s entirely possible that a winner will not be known on election night because of how the coronavirus pandemic has altered voting. With tens of millions of people casting mail-in and absentee ballots, constraints on time and resources could slow ballot counting into potentially a weeks-long process.
Key poll times
Results in some key swing states, including Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, will not and cannot be projected by the end of Election Day.
But there are a handful of critical battleground states that do allow election officials to process and count mail-in ballots prior to Election Day. These ballots will be reported when the polls close. That leaves just in-person votes and ballots returned on Election Day to be counted. If these states are not too close, the winner could be called early. And if the right swing states are called early, it may be possible to project that Biden or Trump will have won the presidency.
Those are the key states to follow. Below is a guide on what to watch on election night, and how to know whether there will be a winner Tuesday night or early Wednesday, or whether you’ll have to stay glued to your screen for for days to come.
Illinois: 6am to 7pm US local time (10pm November 3 to 11am November 4 AEDT)
Texas: 7am to 7pm ET (11pm November 3 to 11am November 4 AEDT)
New York: 6am to 9pm ET (9pm November 3 to 12pm November 4 AEDT)
Ohio: 6:30am to 7:30pm ET (9:30pm November 3 to 10:30am November 4 AEDT)
Florida: 7am to 7pm ET (10pm November 3 to 10am November 4 AEDT)
Minnesota: 7am to 8pm ET (11pm November 3 to 12pm November 4 AEDT)
North Carolina: 6:30am to 7:30pm ET (9:30pm November 3 to 10:30am November 4 AEDT)
Georgia: 7am to 7pm ET (10pm November 3 to 10am November 4 AEDT)
Iowa: 7am to 9pm ET (11pm November 3 to 1pm November 4 AEDT)
Nevada: 7am to 7pm ET (1am to 1pm November 4 AEDT)
Pennsylvania: 7am to 8pm ET (10pm November 3 to 11am November 4 AEDT)
Wisconsin: 7am to 8pm ET (11pm November 3 to 12pm November 4 AEDT)
Arizona: 6am to 7pm ET (11pm November 3 to 12pm November 4 AEDT)
Michigan: 7am to 8pm ET (10pm November 3 to 11am November 4 AEDT)
Aubrey Calaway, 23, waits to vote outside Victory Houston polling station in Houston early Friday, Oct. 30, 2020. The location was one of the Harris County’s 24-hour locations. ( Elizabeth Conley/Houston Chronicle via AP)
Why there could be a delay in knowing the US election result
How US Voting Works
Elections are determined by the electoral college in America, as opposed to a popular vote.
The Electoral College is made up of 538 electors who cast votes to decide the President and Vice-President of the United States.
When voters go to the polls, they will be choosing which candidate receives their state’s electors. The candidate who receives a majority of electoral votes (270) wins the Presidency.
The number 538 is the sum of the nation’s 435 Representatives, 100 Senators, and 3 electors given to the District of Columbia.
When will votes be counted
Voting patterns suggest that Donald Trump may end Election Day in the lead in certain key states, only to be overtaken by Democratic opponent Joe Biden when more votes are tallied.
At the end of November 3 in the US which is around 3pm AEDT, hundreds of thousands of ballots will likely remain left to count in key states, particularly Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
It will be nearly impossible for election clerks on Election Day to count the record number of absentee and provisional ballots that are anticipated to be cast in those three states, as well as in other crucial battlegrounds. Election officials in many states are underfunded and under-resourced, and in some by law are not allowed to begin counting ballots until Election Day.
Polling and absentee ballot request data from some states show that Democratic voters are far more likely to cast their ballots via the mail during the coronavirus pandemic and that Republicans are more inclined to vote in-person. In Pennsylvania, for example, 70% of all absentee ballot requests were made by registered Democrats, as of September 14.
Trump could contest the results
Meanwhile Trump can be expected to declare the whole vote-counting process illegitimate.
Perhaps some irregularities will occur ― a high number of rejected ballots due to normal voter errors, or maybe too many of Trump’s voters try to vote twice, as he has encouraged, something he could point to as election fraud. But Trump could also call the election tainted even if there is no reason to do so ― a notably disturbing possibility.
“There is this risk that the parties start fighting over the vote tallies even when there’s no problem with the vote tallies,” said Ned Foley, an election law expert at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law who wrote a paper in 2019 about this exact scenario. “We could see a situation where they’re fighting even when the system is working properly.”
Trump has already prepared for this potential situation. He says mailing ballots to voters is “unfair.” He boasts, without evidence, that the 2020 election will be “INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT,” and “the most rigged election in history.” Foreign governments will “forge” mailed ballots, he asserts, again without foundation. “People that aren’t citizens, illegals, anybody that walks in California is gonna get a ballot,” he tweeted, incorrectly.
And he has set a bar for when the outcome is declared. “Must know Election results on the night of the Election, not days, months, or even years later!” Trump tweeted in July.
Who will call the election result
While many media outlets call out results as they get information coming in, the Associated Press (AP) is widely seen as a reliable source when it calls the result.
AP has local reporters across all 50 states in the US who collect votes at a local level, plus it also gathers results from state or county websites and online data feeds.
These stringers then phone in results to a vote entry clerk in one of AP’s ‘Vote Entry Centers’. From there a dedicated vote entry clerk keys in the results, before plenty of checks and verifications are performed.
AP says it was 99.8% accurate in calling US races in 2016, and 100% accurate in calling the presidential and congressional races for each state.
When AP announced Donald Trump’s victory in 2016, this meant the election result had been officially called.
—Paul Blumenthal, HuffPost US
If Biden is winning on election night, you will be able to tell because a state like Florida is called either before midnight or in the early hours of Wednesday. There are few scenarios in which a Trump victory could be called on election night, but they rely on him winning the Upper Midwest states that won’t process and count absentee ballots until Election Day or the day before.
On the other hand, if the Sun Belt states that Trump won in 2016, like Arizona, Florida, Georgia and North Carolina, are called for him on election night, prepare to stay glued to the screen for the remainder of the week, month and year.
If the election comes down to which ballots will count in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, the election will be drawn out into a repeat of the 2000 Bush v. Gore debacle.
Just remember, the only thing that matters is who wins after all the votes are counted, whether Trump angrily tweets about it or not.