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How to watch Elections tonight

Poll workers preparing absentee ballots in Lansing, Mich., on Monday.Bryan Denton for The New York Times

How to watch tonight

After a presidential campaign like no other, Election Day is finally here.

If you’re not among the roughly 100 million Americans who have already voted, the good news is that lines this year may be shorter than usual because of all of the early voting. Here’s advice, from, on the logistics of voting today.

The first part of today’s newsletter consists of a viewer’s guide to watching the returns tonight. Above all, I recommend that you be skeptical about any sweeping claims that you hear early tonight — from President Trump or on television and social media. The surge of early voting and mail-in ballots this year means that no candidates, political strategists or journalists have ever experienced an election like today’s. Figuring out the meaning of the early vote totals will be difficult, and I expect some commentators will make mistakes.

The Times will err on the side of being careful.

“We will be cautious. There is no value in getting out front in calling any election, particularly one conducted during a pandemic. And we certainly won’t be guided by declarations from any of the candidates. We will be guided by returns.”

As Dean Baquet, our executive editor, told me yesterday.

Of course, we recognize that many Americans won’t be satisfied waiting until tomorrow morning to hear the results. People are too invested in the outcome. So here are some key indicators to watch for tonight. Just don’t make the mistake of thinking any one of them holds a definitive answer.

Late afternoon and early evening. (All times Eastern.) Expect some people on social media to claim that they have insight into the results by late afternoon — perhaps because they have seen exit polls, perhaps because of lines at polling places. You should ignore this commentary.

Voter lines have little use as a predictive tool, especially this year. Exit polls are also problematic. Even in normal years, exit polls don’t have a clearly better track record than the final pre-election polls.

If you need an early political fix this evening, we recommend the first ever live broadcast of “The Daily,” from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. It will include interviews with voters and Times correspondents across the country.

The earliest meaningful results. They will arrive shortly after 7 p.m., after polls close in much of Florida and Georgia. Thirty minutes later, North Carolina’s polls also close.

Those three states are worth watching for two reasons: First, if Joe Biden wins any of the three, he becomes an overwhelming favorite to win the presidency. Second, the three seem likely to count votes in a more easily decipherable way than almost any other state.

They will announce not only where ballots were coming from but also how those ballots were cast. That distinction is crucial, because the mail-in vote will lean Democratic in most states while the in-person vote will lean Republican. But nobody knows exactly how big the skew will be — so reported vote counts that don’t distinguish between in-person and mail-in ballots will be extremely difficult to analyze.

Because Florida, Georgia and North Carolina will all make the distinction, they are the only three states for which The Times is creating versions of its election-night needle this year. The needles will show the percentage chance of a Trump or Biden victory in each state, as it changes tonight, based on counted ballots.

There will be no national needle this year. “The limits of available data just make too risky to do responsibly,” The Times’s Nate Cohn tweeted.

The bottom line: If Biden seems on track to lose Florida, Georgia and North Carolina, he is no longer a big favorite to win. That would suggest the polls had underestimated Trump’s support. In FiveThirtyEight’s simulations, Biden has about a 50 percent chance of victory if he loses all three Southeastern swing states. He would then probably need to win at least Pennsylvania or Arizona.

The Senate. North Carolina will be important for a second reason: It is home to one of the Senate races most likely to determine Senate control. If the Democrat, Cal Cunningham, defeats the Republican incumbent, Thom Tillis, it will mean Democrats are on track to hold at least 50 Senate seats in January.

A second big Senate race is in Maine, where polls close at 8 p.m. Maine’s ranked-choice voting system means that official results may not be tallied for several days. But if the Democratic challenger, Sara Gideon, is winning more than 47 percent of the first-round vote, she will be in good shape to beat Susan Collins, the Republican incumbent, Dan Shea of Colby College told us.

In Arizona and Colorado, where polls close at 9 p.m., the Democratic challengers are favored. Winning these four seats — and the vice presidency, which breaks Senate ties — will probably be enough to give Democrats control of the Senate. They also have a decent shot to win in South Carolina (where polls close at 7 p.m.), Iowa (10 p.m.), Montana (10 p.m.) and Georgia, where one or both races may go to January runoffs.

If the early stage doesn’t go well for Biden, the country’s attention will then turn to two states above all: Pennsylvania (where polls close at 8 p.m.) and Arizona. Pennsylvania will likely take days to count mail ballots, meaning there might not be a result until later this week.

But Biden has a narrow path without Pennsylvania. He would need to win Michigan and Wisconsin (where he is favored), Arizona (where he holds a narrow lead in polls) and one of the two congressional districts that award electoral votes separately (in Maine and Nebraska, and Biden leads in both).

One wild card: Texas. With Texas, Biden wouldn’t need to win anything other than the states Hillary Clinton won in 2016 — not Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin or Arizona.

Most analysts believe Biden won’t win Texas if he isn’t also winning at least one state in the Southeast. But early turnout has been enormous in Texas this year — and elections are inherently uncertain. That’s why so many Americans are feeling anxious this morning.

For a more detailed guide to tonight, see Nate Cohn’s hour-by-hour preview.

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