November 2, 2020

Election night in America promises to be bewildering, with a torrent of election results coming out for hours on end. What does it all mean? When will we know who the winners are? How can you avoid being conned by partisan misinformation?

Here’s a guide to navigating media and social media on election night.

News websites with results and analysis

The best and most unbiased information will come from traditional media sources.

The major broadcast and cable networks will have their own “decision desks” that sort through the raw results and determine when it’s appropriate to “call” a state for one candidate or the other — and when it’s not. These decision desks are staffed by experienced number crunchers with no partisan ax to grind.

News executives and front-line journalists are aware of delays that might come from the coronavirus pandemic and increased mail-in voting. Because of that, officials supervising the television networks have pledged to take extra care this year not to jump to conclusions about who’s winning a state until they are certain.

Many major media outlets will devote entire sections of their websites to collecting real-time results. The big broadcast networks include ABCCBSCNNFox News, and NBC; their election night websites are usually extensive. (While Fox News’ commentators are generally aligned with President Donald Trump, its decision desk is widely considered to be as credible and independent as those at the other networks.) The Associated Press has its own race-calling operation that also supplies other media outlets, as does Decision Desk HQ.

Other major media outlets that should have detailed and trustworthy results and analysis include The New York Times, The Washington Post and Politico. Other news outlets to keep in the mix include NPRPBS, the Los Angeles TimesUSA Today, The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg.

Trusted reporters and analysts on Twitter

On Twitter, a fast medium ideally suited to sharing data instantly, you can follow the main accounts and the politics accounts of the media outlets listed above via a curated list that PolitiFact has compiled. (Access it here.)

But it’s also informative to keep an eye on the bite-sized dispatches from political journalists and academics. People who want credible data and thoughtful analysis should focus primarily on ideologically neutral accounts on election night rather than getting swept up in cherry-picked information by partisans on one side or the other.

The following list includes a selection of politically oriented Twitter accounts that have a track record of tweeting real-time, granular reports on election results, either nationally or in the states, and that are open-minded and ideologically neutral.

In this list curated by PolitiFact, we’re emphasizing accounts that focus on election results and analysis, as well as tweets from journalists on the ground.

If election night turns into a question of legal battles, some good experts to follow on election law and administration are:

  • Rick Hasen, University of California-Irvine law professor (@rickhasen)
  • Ned Foley, Ohio State University law professor (@nedfoley)
  • Michael McDonald, University of Florida political scientist (@ElectProject)
  • Nate Persily, Stanford University law professor (@persily)
  • Grace Panetta, Business Insider (@grace_panetta)
  • Amy Sherman, PolitiFact (@AmySherman1)

For deep dives into some of the battleground states, we include journalists, political scientists, and others who keep close track of voting patterns in their state:

When polls will close in each state

Here’s a list of poll closing times across the country. These times are important to remember because states don’t release results (and media outlets can’t make calls) until the polls are closed throughout a state.

Just because a state’s polls are closed doesn’t mean media outlets will be ready to call a winner immediately.

In some cases, that could happen: Media outlets may call a victory for Joe Biden in an overwhelmingly blue state, and for Trump in an overwhelmingly red state. But there’s no mystery going into election night about the results in those states. The calls that are uncertain are those for the “battleground” states where the contest remains competitive.

The most important six states in the battle for the presidency are Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Another state that may not be quite as decisive as these six, but which is receiving significant attention because it’s both competitive for the presidential race and has an early poll-closing time, is Georgia.

How soon or late we can expect a winner in key states

The timing of state-by-state calls is uncertain and will depend in part on how close the elections are. As we’ve noted previously, the 2020 election has some unusual features that will complicate the aftermath of Election Day.

Fears about in-person voting during a pandemic led many states to move towards mail balloting. This, combined with greater interest in early in-person voting, means that a much larger percentage of the vote will be cast before Election Day than in the past. This shift will have an impact on how the release of results on election night, and on the following days, play out.

Complicating matters further is that supporters of President Trump seem to be heeding his warnings to avoid mail ballots and plan to vote in person. This means that mail ballot results, whenever they are announced, should be relatively strong for Biden, while in-person votes should be relatively strong for Trump. Another complication is that people new to casting their ballot by mail may make mistakes in the process and have their ballot thrown out, or perhaps become the subject of lawsuits over whether they should be counted.

The method of voting will play a role on how fast a given vote is counted. Some mail ballots that are collected early in the process could move through the system relatively quickly and be announced on the early side. Other states don’t count mailed ballots until all polls close; those results will take longer.

All told, experts say that, of the key battleground states, the one that should be able to handle the counting process most efficiently is Florida. It was already a state with a well-developed system for handling mail ballots and early in-person votes. Florida can also start processing and tallying (but not releasing the results of) mail ballots a month before Election Day, reducing the election night pressure. Because of this experience, observers expect Florida to be able to announce many of its results fairly quickly.

“Florida is the state that will be the fastest out of the block, by far,” said Charles Stewart III, a political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

This doesn’t mean that Florida will definitely be called for either Biden or Trump early on election night. As anyone who lived through the 2000 Florida recount knows, another thing Florida is known for is close statewide races. Even if most of the votes are counted quickly, the margin may still be small enough to keep media outlets from calling a winner in the state.

Still, if Biden does jump out to a sizable lead in the Sunshine State on election night, it could be bad news for Trump, since his path to 270 electoral votes narrows without Florida. While estimates differ, another state that could report relatively early is Arizona, the only other state among the six key battlegrounds that has extensive experience with mail ballots.

The state has enacted a law allowing officials to start counting early ballots 14 days before Election Day. Maricopa County, which accounts for 60% of the state’s population, is expecting the bulk of its vote to be counted on election night, The New York Times reported.

Wisconsin could be next to offer most of its results. While state law does not allow ballots to be counted until Election Day, officials have promised to start clearing the backlog early that morning, and Democratic Gov. Tony Evers has said he expects the counting to be done either on Election Day or at most a day later. Stewart of MIT said that sounds likely.

Michigan could be done by Wednesday at noon, Stewart said.

The remaining three states —  Pennsylvania, Georgia and North Carolina — seem unlikely to report most of their results on election night or the day after. That’s because of a combination of late start times for ballot processing and ongoing litigation over election laws. For these states, full results might not be ready for days or more than a week. It’s important to note that is not an indication of fraud or a rigged election. Slow counts are a regular occurrence in tight races when there are large numbers of mailed ballots.

Because any of these states, or several of them, could be crucial to determining the winner of the presidency, we could be in for a long, bumpy ride after the polls close. However, if Biden or Trump moves to a dominating lead early in the states that count quickly, the late-reporting states may not matter, and the winner will be crowned fairly quickly.

This article was originally published on Oct. 21, 2020, by PolitiFact, which is owned by the Poynter Institute, and is republished here with permission. See more of their fact-checks here.

Support high-integrity, independent journalism that serves democracy. Make a gift to Poynter today. The Poynter Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and your gift helps us make good journalism better.
Donate

More News

Back to News