Election results: Here’s what to expect and when

Photo by April Sikorski

After more than 500 days of wall-to-wall political coverage, getting updated polling results on Election Day isn’t as easy as you’d think.

“People go to websites in the middle of Election Day expecting that there’s news,” says Sasha Issenberg, editorial director and chief strategist for VoteCastr, a media startup that has partnered with Slate and Vice to provide real-time information and analysis of key battleground states. “It is the day where there’s the biggest disconnect between supply and demand in the news marketplace.”

(Scroll down for a full-day timeline of when results are expected to be available.) 

For much of Election Day, VoteCastr will be one of the only places to find updated result projections, essentially breaking a long-accepted embargo on reporting voting data until the majority of polls have closed. It’s the first time this kind of information will be made public on Election Day, and the accuracy of the data is unknown, which raises questions for other news outlets who must decide how to report it, if at all. “I think that’s there’s a lot of reckoning [to do] for other news organizations that have their own internal standards and protocols for which polls they report and how they describe them,” says Issenberg. “We realize it’s new and if [people] want to be distrustful of it, that’s their decision to make.”

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The traditional media embargo stems from a move by the big TV networks to call the 1980 election for Ronald Reagan before the polls closed on the West Coast, a move many people believed depressed turnout. Issenberg isn’t buying the argument. “We generally think that it’s paternalistic to say that voters can’t be trusted with information,” he says.

Unlike in 1980, VoteCastr won’t be making projections of who is likely to win. Rather it uses statistical models, similar to those used by campaigns, that combine actual voter turnout and pre-polling research to offer an estimated breakdown of how candidates are doing in battleground states at particular times throughout the day. “The lead at 10 am is not going to be the lead at 2 pm, and is not going to be the person who necessarily wins it at 7 pm,” he says.

Related: 7 photos that capture the absurdity of this election season

Once the polls close, VoteCastr becomes obsolete, and Issenberg suggests that viewers switch over to the TV networks and newspaper websites to track the results. “We’re filling a very distinct temporal niche, we think an important one, between when the last pre-election polls and projections come down on Monday and when the polls close on Tuesday, and that’s about it,” he says.

Despite the caveats, some people have expressed concerns the project will impact voter turnout. Nate Cohn of The New York Times’ The Upshot, suggested the data might make people want to throw up if they don’t understand that it’s showing a snapshot in time, not a forecast.

Here’s a rundown of what will be available, and when, on Election Day. 

Timeline (EST)

12 am

Cable news outlets, such as Fox News and CNN, have already begun live, rolling election coverage that will continue until 4 am Wednesday.

5 am      

First polls open in Vermont, followed by the Eastern states, and then the rest of the country. Exit pollers report for duty at polling stations in select counties.

8 am

Slate.com begins publishing the VoteCastr live modeling of voter turnout and breakdowns in seven battleground states: Florida, Pennsylvania, Iowa, New Hampshire, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Nevada based on voter turnout and pre-polling information.

9 am

Vice begins streaming VoteCastr’s effort live on vicenews.com from Vice headquarters in Brooklyn.

5 pm

Exit poll data, provided by Edison Research, becomes available to the National Election Pool (NEP), which is comprised of the Associated Press, ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox, and NBC.

Exit poll data is collected via random samples throughout Election Day by pollsters based at approximately 1,000 polling stations around the country, who expect to survey about 85,000 people. However, due to clustering in the type of people who agree to participate, exit poll data, taken alone, is generally considered inaccurate for projecting election outcomes.

In 2000 and 2004, exit poll data was leaked and published by some media outlets, such as The Drudge Report and Slate, and used as the basis for predictions that turned out to be wrong—such as the forecast that John Kerry would take the 2004 election. Since then, exit poll data has become closely guarded. Media representatives who have access to the data are required to enter a quarantine room at an undisclosed location around midday on Election Day, where they must hand over all communication devices until 5 pm when the reps return to their news outlets with the findings. That’s when viewers will start hearing reports of voter sentiment about issues.

Related: Journalists too easily charmed by power, access, and creamy risotto 

6 pm  

First polls close in some counties in Kentucky and Indiana.

As the polls close, more than 4,000 Associated Press stringers around the country collect votes from county election centers throughout the night. Those results are phoned into a Vote Entry Center where they are tabulated and verified before being distributed to newspapers, broadcasters, and websites throughout the country.

“Even within a state, we often get results on different media, and in different formats, because of differences in the counties’ election equipment, their procedures or their budgets,” says Don Rehill, director of election tabulations and research for the AP, in a statement. “As developers and folks involved in compiling election data like to say, there is no ‘common data format.’ At AP we essentially take this crazy quilt of formats and we create our own common data format to process it.” 

Once enough data becomes available, news organizations begin projecting results in presidential, senate, house, and gubernatorial races. This year that information is available in more formats than ever before. CNN for example, will not only be reporting results via more than 100 hours of live TV coverage and on its website and mobile apps, but also via Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, Kik, Line, Discover, and Apple News, among others. BuzzFeed will be live streaming on Twitter.

The media’s track record in calling the Presidential election has a somewhat checkered history. In the notorious 2000 election, TV networks called Florida, which turned out to be the pivotal state in the presidential race, for Al Gore at around 8 pm, only to have to walk back the call two hours later. By 1:30 am, the state still remained in flux, although it ultimately went to George W. Bush by 537 votes after an extensive recount that drew out the election result for weeks.

Related: When important investigative reporting must compete with Brangelina

Poll closing times in battleground states:

7 pm  

Last polls close in Virginia, New Hampshire

7 pm  

Last polls close in North Carolina, Ohio

8 pm  

Last polls close in Florida, Pennsylvania

9 pm  

Last polls close in Michigan, Colorado, Wisconsin

10 pm

Last polls close in Nevada, Iowa

1 am  

Adak, Alaska is the last county in the country to close polls

4 am  

The Associated Press and other news outlets cease live coverage, to resume the following day.

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Shelley Hepworth is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter @shelleymiranda.