This year, the rise of mail voting will make election night much harder to follow. In most states, the results will be heavily skewed at various points of the night, depending on when a state counts mail ballots, in-person early voting or Election Day voting. In other words, the results could be very misleading. And in some states, the count might take days.
More than anything else, keep these three tips in mind:
Be cautious. A lot of states are changing the way they’re administering the election, and even the experts don’t know exactly how all this is going to go.
If you want to dig into detailed results, focus on the right places. If you’re the kind of person who checks the results by county, make sure you’re focusing on counties where all of the votes have been counted. Partial results will be heavily skewed toward whatever vote method was counted first, so home in on the places where results are complete. One possible exception: if a candidate is beating expectations with results that were supposed to be strong for the other candidate.
Our results pages will offer an estimate of whether nearly all of the votes are counted. It’s just a guess, but train your eyes there.
Finally, focus on the states that count their early and mail votes before counting Election Day votes. Why? They’ll probably wrap up most of their count on election night — their counties will probably tell us that all of the vote is in. Florida, Iowa, Ohio and Texas are good examples. Pennsylvania and Arizona are not.
Here’s what I’ll be paying attention to, hour by hour:
7 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Eastern
Major poll closings: Florida (Eastern time zone), Georgia, North Carolina, Ohio
What to watch: The Times election needles in Georgia, Florida and North Carolina, which analyze incomplete results to estimate the likeliest outcome. These are some high-powered needles: We’ll process the results by precinct and vote method, which should give us a very granular view of what’s going on.
Signs of a Biden or Trump win? Again, just watch the needles — at this early stage, the results will be heavily skewed by vote method, and the needle is the best way to see any early trends.
Tips on these states:
Florida It counts fast. The early and mail votes will arrive first and will probably lean Democratic; don’t be surprised to see Joe Biden take a lead. Then the Election Day votes should flood in. We’ll see whether President Trump can keep it close before the more Republican Panhandle counties (which are in the Central time zone) come in at 8 p.m. Nearly all of the votes will be counted by that time, and it’ll be a slow trickle to the finish. Unless it’s a really close race, it should be called on election night.
Ohio Early and mail ballots will come first; don’t be surprised to see Mr. Biden take an early lead. Then we’ll have to wait for the Election Day vote, which could take several more hours. Mr. Trump will most likely mount a comeback, and we’ll see whether it’s enough.
Georgia This one often counts slowly. The early in-person votes usually come first, and usually in rural areas. Don’t be surprised to see Mr. Trump take the early lead. Then we’ll have to wait — first for the Atlanta-area counties to report at all, and then for the more Democratic absentee votes. This one could take all night.
North Carolina A quick count. As with Florida, expect the early and nearly all mail ballots first and fast. Mr. Biden will likely take an early lead, followed by the Election Day vote and a Trump comeback. We’ll see whether it’s enough, but we could easily have enough votes for a call by midnight, even in a close race. One catch: The state accepts absentee ballots well after the election, which will help Mr. Biden.
8 p.m. Eastern
Major poll closings: Florida (Central time zone), Maine, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire (poll closings vary by municipality, with some closing earlier), Michigan (Eastern time zone), Texas (Central time zone)
What to watch: Stay focused on the needles in North Carolina and Florida, where things will be moving quickly. Resist the temptation to look at big leads for Mr. Biden in Texas and Ohio.
Signs of a Biden win: If Mr. Biden still holds a comfortable lead in Florida after the early votes arrive in the Panhandle, the president’s chances are on life support. Of course, the needle will probably have told you this already. North Carolina’s Election Day vote will take longer, but maybe we’ll have enough votes there for the needle to start to make up its mind.
Signs of a Trump win: If Mr. Trump has already fought Mr. Biden to a draw in Florida, this one could go down to the wire — a precondition for a national Trump victory. At this point, victory in Florida would come down to the straggling Election Day vote: Democratic ballots in Miami-Dade and Broward, versus a whole lot of Republican vote elsewhere in the state. Again, the needle will be your guide.
Tips on these states:
Maine/New Hampshire: In theory, both of these states should count all of their ballots in no particular order, but I don’t know much about what to expect here. I strongly recommend waiting to see the vote in a completed township before rushing to any judgments.
Pennsylvania: This could be painful. The state will mainly be counting in-person Election Day ballots on election night, because state law prohibits election administrators from even opening mail ballots until Election Day. That means it’s going to be a while until they get through all the mail votes, which represent one-third of the overall vote. In the final Times/Siena survey, Mr. Biden had a 75-19 lead among voters who requested an absentee ballot and an 80-13 lead among those who had returned one. Mr. Trump could easily lead all through the night, even if he’s on track for a decisive loss.
Texas The early votes from metropolitan areas will arrive quickly, which will appear to give Mr. Biden a big lead. Then we’ll have to see whether Mr. Trump can catch up with rural and Election Day votes. Texas can take a while to count its votes, but it ought to be mostly finished on election night. That’s more than we can say for a lot of states.
9 p.m. Eastern
Major poll closings: Arizona, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan (final polls close in Central time zone)
What to watch: This is the moment when we’ll probably have a good idea of what direction this night is heading. We’ll have a very good sense of what happened in Florida and North Carolina, which will have either effectively decided the election in Mr. Biden’s favor or kept the president’s hopes alive. We’ll now start to turn to the Midwest, where we’ll get our first indications of whether Mr. Biden can win back the white working-class voters who abandoned Democrats four years ago.
Signs of a Biden win: If Mr. Biden’s still leading or outright victorious in North Carolina and Florida, according to the needle. We also ought to have some counties all wrapped up in Ohio, for our first clear look at what’s happening in the Midwest. If Mr. Biden is running well ahead of Mrs. Clinton’s performance there in 2016, that will be a clear tell that the polls were generally right about his strength among white voters.
Signs of a Trump win: If Mr. Trump’s going to win, he will need to be favored in North Carolina and Florida at this point, at least in the view of the needle. He’ll also need to show some surprising strength in the first counties to wrap up in the Northern battlegrounds.
Tips on these states:
Arizona: This one will be frustrating. First, Arizona can’t even report its results for a whole additional hour, so don’t even bother to check for the initial results.
Then at 10 p.m., we’ll get early and absentee votes — cast by the weekend before the election — in one big dump. That’ll be a huge share of the overall electorate: more than two million votes. Mr. Biden will hold the lead: Registered Democrats outpaced Republicans in the early return. But it’s not clear whether it’ll be a huge lead, because the returns will also reflect voters who are fairly old and white.
After that, they’ll tally up the votes cast on Election Day — hopefully by sometime in the early morning in the East. This vote could be pretty Republican by registration, but it’ll also include voters who are fairly young and nonwhite.
Finally, the absentee votes received late — say, on Election Day — won’t be reported for a few more days. Usually, those votes are very Democratic. But Democrats got their mail ballots in early, so the remaining outstanding ballots heading into this weekend were very Republican. The big question: Are those Republicans who haven’t yet turned in their ballots going to just vote in person on Election Day, in which case the Republicans wouldn’t do well in the late mail vote? Or are the late mail votes going to be Republican this year, just because the Democratic ones came in so fast?
Michigan: Another weird one. Some large jurisdictions began processing absentee ballots before the election, so it shouldn’t be quite as bad as in Pennsylvania. But on balance, absentee votes could be slow and counted later than the Election Day vote. If Mr. Biden leads at all on election night, that’s probably a good sign for him. But we’ll have to see just how many absentee ballots they get through.
Wisconsin: This one might be less frustrating. Most counties say they’ll be able to count everything on election night, and most counties will report their absentee and Election Day votes together. If that’s right, we should actually get a decent picture here pretty quickly. A big caveat: Not every town or county reports its absentee and Election Day votes together. You’ll have to be careful to make sure you’re not looking at a county that’s still missing a huge chunk of Democratic absentees, including Milwaukee and Green Bay’s Brown County.
Minnesota: Reasonable. Minnesota allows advance processing of Election Day ballots, so it should be able to tally those ballots fairly quickly. It’s not clear whether they’re going to count them in any particular order. I’d guess that means we get an unskewed count, but we’ll want to be cautious and wait for counties to wrap up before we make too many proclamations.
10 p.m. Eastern
Major poll closings: Iowa, Nevada
What to watch: The Arizona early vote dump, and then we keep scouring the Midwest for the counties that appear to have concluded their count.
Signs of a Biden win: Let’s suppose that Mr. Biden didn’t win Florida and North Carolina, which we more or less ought to know by 10 p.m. First, we’re going to want to see if he has a big lead in the Arizona early vote. He ought to have one. Then all eyes on the Midwest — and especially Wisconsin and Ohio. Here, we’re looking for early signs of strength for Mr. Biden. In Ohio, we’re focused on the completed counties; in Wisconsin, we’re trying to take a broad, aggregate view of all the counties without centralized absentee precincts. If Mr. Biden’s doing far better than Hillary Clinton did in 2016 in mostly white rural areas, that might be all we need to know. We’ll also have to keep a special eye on the counties in Appalachian eastern Ohio, for some hints on Pennsylvania.
Signs of a Trump win: First, did Mr. Trump keep it close in the Arizona early vote? That would be a good sign for him. Then all eyes are on these mostly white Midwestern counties, especially those that have counted all of their vote. The president needs to match his 2016 tallies — or more. If the polls are right, he’ll fare far worse. If they’re wrong, we’ll know — even if we’re not yet sure whether he’ll squeak it out again.
Tips on these states:
Iowa: Iowa is usually fairly straightforward. Officials count most votes quickly, and they usually count the early votes first — so Mr. Biden might get out to an early lead. Either way, we shouldn’t have to wait too long before receiving a clear picture. A close race would be a bad sign for Mr. Trump.
Nevada: It used to be straightforward, but mail voting will complicate this one a bit, too. We should get basically all of the early votes and at least the Clark County (Las Vegas) absentee vote pretty quickly. Then we’ll wait for them to count the rest — which could take well into the early-morning hours in the East. And even when that’s done, there will still be late mail ballots to count: The state accepts ballots that arrive through Nov. 10.
11 p.m. Eastern
No battleground poll closings.
What to watch. In 2016, this was around the time that Mr. Trump was the projected winner in Ohio and Iowa. If he has any shot of a breakthrough in the more competitive Midwestern battlegrounds, he ought to be in a similar spot.
It’s also about the time I’ll be peeking a bit more at Pennsylvania and Michigan. Yes, Mr. Trump probably has a big lead at this point. But are there any counties that seem to have gotten through their mail absentee votes? I’d guess some are wrapping up.
Signs of a Biden win: We’re still assuming that Mr. Biden hasn’t been called the winner in North Carolina or Florida, though that’s possible at this stage — even in a tightly fought race. Either way, most of our attention remains on the Midwest, and Mr. Biden would be outrunning Mrs. Clinton’s 2016 performance by a wide margin in completed counties in Iowa and Ohio. There probably won’t be a call in either state.
Mr. Biden would also hope to be running ahead of Mrs. Clinton’s 2016 showing in the Wisconsin counties without centralized absentee precincts.
Signs of a Trump win: This is around the time when Mr. Trump was projected the winner in North Carolina and Florida four years ago, though the late mail ballots in North Carolina might preclude a projection there in a fairly close race. Whether he’s got a call or not, Mr. Trump ought to be ahead in both states. Ohio and Iowa could fall into the president’s column around this time as well.
This is also about the time Georgia was called in 2016, though the race is closer this year, and the absentee ballot situation raises some added questions. If you’re a Trump fan, don’t panic if you still don’t have the call in Georgia at this hour.
Onward into the night
Signs of a Biden win: If the polls are right and the count is on track, Mr. Biden is probably getting a Wisconsin and Nevada call on election night. Georgia’s another possibility — if Mr. Biden is going to win the state, he has probably caught up to Mr. Trump by now. If the night’s going really well for Mr. Biden, maybe he’s still competitive or even leading in Iowa, Ohio or Texas.
Michigan and Pennsylvania? Well, we’re just going to have to wait and see. Of the two, Michigan seems more plausible.
Exactly where will the count stand in Michigan and Pennsylvania if Mr. Biden’s on track for victory? It depends on how many absentee ballots they get through, of course. If they haven’t counted many mail ballots, Mr. Trump could even lead by double digits.
The better measure: Focus on any counties that manage to wrap up their count. I’d guess some will get pretty close. If Mr. Biden’s winning, he will start to outrun Mrs. Clinton’s 2016 showing in the counties that get through their mail votes. That could be the tell.
Signs of a Trump win: If the president’s on track, the race in Nevada and Wisconsin might be too close to call. Even if he eventually loses Wisconsin, he might hold on to the lead all the way until we get the absentees from Milwaukee. He probably already got the call in that long list of states where Mr. Biden’s hoping to squeak out a win, like Ohio and so on.
The most important sign would be a lead in Pennsylvania and Michigan. In Pennsylvania, it could easily be a double-digit lead, depending on just how many absentee ballots have been counted. With Mr. Biden holding such a commanding lead among the third of the electorate that voted early, a Trump win most likely involves a double-digit victory on Election Day — and a double-digit lead in the count, late into the night.