As with many other details of election law, each state gets to choose their voting hours on election day. Thus, unlike a place like the United Kingdom where all polls close at the same time and when results are announced is a matter of how long it takes to count the vote, there is a slow progression across the country as the different states close. A complicating factor is that some states are split down the middle by time zones. In most of the states with multiple time zones, the polls close based on the local time (i.e. the polls in the eastern part of the state close an hour earlier than the polls in the western part of the state) rather than all polls in the state closing simultaneously. Another complicating factor is that all states only require that you be in line to vote at the time that the polls close; so, in larger precincts, there can be a long line delaying the report of votes from that precinct. As noted in Part One, part of the projection process is looking at what precincts are still outstanding. In a close state, the long lines at urban precincts (which are likely to favor Democrats) can make it hard to figure how strong the Democratic vote in a state is for an extended period.
In terms of interest, not every state is the same. A lot of states and districts are considered “safe” for President or Senate or Governor or U.S. Representative. Of course, if something surprising happens in those areas, it could be a sign of a wave developing, but most of the attention will be focused on the “battleground” areas that will decide a close election. What follows in the rest of this part and the rest of this series is a review in chronological order of closing time (using Eastern Standard Time) at what to look for as the evening progresses.
6:00 p.m. (EST) — Aside from individual precincts in certain states (primarily New Hampshire), the first polls close. In particular, polls close in the eastern part of Kentucky and almost all of Indiana (except for the part near Chicago). Both of these states are expected to go for Trump by significant margins. The races to watch are Indiana — both for Senate and Governor. Potentially, the Second District in Indiana (currently held by the Republicans) could be a close race. If the Democrats are going to take the House, it will require them running close and winning these types of seats. By network convention, the races in Kentucky and Indiana will not be officially projected until the polls close in the rest of these two states.
7:00 p.m. (EST) — The rest of the polls close in Kentucky and Indiana. With an hour’s worth of returns in, the presidential races in these two states should be called pretty soon. By this time, the Senate race should be looking clearer. While Indiana is just one of the seven races that will determine the Senate, an early call for either party in Indiana could be a sign on how the evening will go.
Other states closing are Georgia, South Carolina, Vermont, and Virginia. Additionally, polls in the eastern part of Florida (all but the panhandle) close. Vermont should be a quick call for Secretary Clinton. The Democrats expect/need to win Virginia. The Republicans expect to win Georgia and South Carolina, but Georgia especially could be closer than the Republicans would like. While every state has its unique quirks how long these three states take to call will be a clue as to which candidate is exceeding expectation. Of this batch, the most significant races may be three congressional seats in Virginia, Virginia 4, Virginia 7, and Virginia 10. All three are currently held by Republicans. Virginia 4 is a seat that the Democrats should gain if they are to make any significant dent in the Republican majority, Virginia 10 is one that the Democrats need to gain to get close to a majority. Virginia 10 (like Indiana 2) is one of the seats that could go Democratic if the Democrats have a wave that sweeps them to a majority. There is a governor’s race in Vermont. However, it takes an absolute majority to win. If not, the state legislature picks the winner from the top two. There is a slim chance that the Republicans could take the seat, but it is more likely to be decided by the legislature which will probably pick the Democrat.
Florida is in some ways the reverse of Indiana. In Indiana, the western part of the state is a potential strong area for the Democrats. In Florida, the panhandle is a strong area for the Republicans. While for the reasons noted above, many of the Democratic precincts will not come in until later in the evening, strong numbers during this hour would be a good sign that Secretary Clinton is winning the state and that Representative Murphy has a shot at unseating Senator Rubio. In addition, most of the congressional districts in Florida (all but Florida 1 and part of Florida 2) are in the eastern part of the state. There are six districts in Florida that are considered potentially close races. Two (Florida 2 and Florida 18) are currently held by Democrats — Florida 2 was a bit of an upset win in 2014 and leans Republican. Four (Florida 10, Florida 13, Florida 26, and Florida 27) are currently held by Republicans. Florida 26 and Florida 27 are part of the Republican’s “Cuban” block in South Florida. But the younger Cuban-Americans are not as loyal as their grandparents and these two districts only lean Republican. (The current representative in Florida 27 has represented this part of the state for 28 years, so it may be more of a reach but could switch when the seat becomes open.) The Democrats need to gain at least one or two net seats in Florida to have a shot at the majority.
7:30 p.m. (EST) — While most states close polls on the hour, four states close polls on the half hour. Three of these states close at 7:30 and two of them are very, very big — North Carolina and Ohio. The most significant race in West Virginia is for Governor. Polling has been all over the map. West Virginia is unfortunately an example of how the Democratic Party has not done a good job at figuring out how to redevelop areas when the predominant industry is slowly declining. For now, Democrats are still competitive at the state level, but the party needs to have serious discussion on a vision for a post-coal West Virginia if we hope to be competitive in the future.
North Carolina and Ohio are must win states for Donald Trump and for Republican hopes to keep the U.S. Senate. Both states are likely to be too close to call initially. While the Republicans seem likely to keep the Senate seat in Ohio, Democratic wins in one or both of these two states for president would indicate that the ground game and the last minute swings are likely to favor the Democrats nationally making a Clinton win a near certainty. North Carolina also has a highly contested race for governor. The current governor has supported anti-LGBT legislation. A Democratic win would be another sign to the Republicans that their social conservatism is a losing agenda. Finally, thanks in part to court-ordered redistricting, there are multiple districts in which the Democrats could gain a seat. The current breakdown in North Carolina is 10 Republicans, 3 Democrats.
As 8:00 p.m. approaches, Trump is likely to have the early lead both in the raw vote count and in the projected electoral votes. Between Kentucky, Indiana, and West Virginia, Trump will have 24 votes. If Trump has won South Carolina and Georgia, he will be up to 49. The big issue for the Democrats will be whether Virginia has been called. If it has, Clinton will have 16 electoral votes (Virginia and Vermont). Additionally, the big questions will be how the Senate races in Ohio, North Carolina, and Indiana look, how the governor’s races in Vermont, West Virginia, Indiana, and North Carolina look. Finally, while it will probably be too early to have any of the key congressional races projected, it will be significant how those races are shaping up.