The 3rd November will mark the end of one of the most polarised and divisive American election campaigns in recent memory. Election night can be a bit confusing if you’ve never watched the coverage of one before (and even if you’re a seasoned election night viewer). So, here is a breakdown of all the important bits you can be looking out for.

This year the pandemic has led to a record number of people sending in their ballots by mail rather than voting in person. It has been argued that mail-in ballots may take longer to count this year due to the postal service being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of them. However, the postal service has assured voters that this is not the case.

The Electoral College 

One of the main things that sets American elections apart from UK elections is their use of the electoral college. The electoral college is made up of 538 electors, equal to the total voting membership of the United States Congress.  The electors are the people who formally elect the President and Vice President of the United States. Every state has a different number of electoral college votes depending on their population size. For example, California has a staggering 55 electoral college votes as a result of its 40 million inhabitants, whereas Wyoming, with a population of just 586,000, only has three electoral votes.

Presidential candidates win the election by getting just over half of these electoral college votes, or 270. If a candidate wins the most votes in a state, they will pick up all the electoral college votes, even if they win by just one vote. This is why, as seen with the 2016 election, a presidential candidate can win the presidency while not winning the popular vote. This is also why presidential candidates want to win states like Texas, Florida, and New York, because the large amount of electoral college votes up for grabs in these states will give them an easy path to the White House.

Exactly who the electoral college benefits is up for debate. Some believe larger states benefit because presidential candidates can win by focusing their efforts on the largest twelve states while neglecting the smaller ones. But others believe that smaller states, such as Rhode Island, Vermont, and New Hampshire, don’t lose out too much as every electoral vote counts in a close election. (We may see this happen between Trump and Biden). In addition, the number of people represented by an electoral college vote can differ from state to state, which means that in some states one vote is worth more than in others. Administrations on both sides of the political aisle have attempted to reform the electoral college system in the past.

Of course, just like with UK constituencies, there are states that will always vote for one party and there are swing states. It is the swing states and key battleground states that you should be paying the most attention to on election night.

Which states to look out for: 

Ohio is termed a “bellwether” state because voters there have often chosen the national winner. The state has backed the winning candidate in every presidential election since World War Two, making it a sort of electoral fortune teller. This year however, the Republicans look set to hold on in Ohio despite nationally the Democrats pulling ahead in opinion polls. Polls close in Ohio at 00:30 GMT and officials will release preliminary results, but the state will not release any further results until the count is complete. They have until 28th November to declare a winning candidate.

Voters in Ohio

Much like the current electoral map of Britain, the electoral map of America is also quite different when compared to previous elections. In 2016, Trump unexpectedly won Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, with blue-collar workers in the rust belt backing him in his bid to bring back manufacturing jobs. Pennsylvania will likely be the key battleground state on the 3rd November and the candidate who wins here will likely secure their path to the White House. Michigan and Wisconsin are also being viewed as key to winning the election this year.

Many of the promises Trump made to these states he has been unable to keep, with manufacturing in these areas remaining at the same levels of production (or less) than in the 2016 election. Coupled with the economic shock of the coronavirus pandemic, we could see a greater number of Democratic votes this time around; a recent Reuters/Ipos poll (Oct27-Nov 1) shows Biden leading Trump by 10% in Wisconsin and Michigan and by 7% in Pennsylvania.

All swing states are important in this election, but arguably the most important swing state is Florida. With 29 electoral college votes, Florida is widely seen as the epicentre of presidential elections. Polls are currently too close to call, with no candidate making any clear ground over others. This year, however, the election is less clear cut and winning Florida won’t necessarily mean winning the election outright, unlike previous years, due to the battles over Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan.

Texas is also a state to watch this year. If Biden wins here, we could be looking at a Democratic landslide since Texas has not voted for a Democrat since 1974. Their 38 electoral college votes could secure an electoral victory for one of the candidates. Biden has generally experienced favourable polling but has fallen back slightly in recent days as a result of his comments regarding oil. Nevertheless, this seat is still all to play for on Tuesday night.

Joe Biden Campaigning

How to know who’s winning:

Unlike in UK elections, there is no national exit poll. Instead, US media outlets rely on a projection which roughly predicts what the result might be. It is constructed using smaller exit polls from states and data from previous elections.

Every state has different rules on how they count and declare votes, meaning there are some differences in reporting between results. Some states declare votes as they are counting while others only start counting once the polls have closed, meaning they will be late to declare. Postal votes will usually be declared first so they may favour one candidate over the other, but often they can be overtaken by in-person votes that are added as they are counted.

US media outlets will call a state once they think the candidate has gained such a lead over their opponent that it is now impossible for the other candidate to win.

States have until the 28th November to declare their votes. Therefore, it is likely that there may not be a clear winner on election night, but a result may emerge in the coming days or even weeks after the election. (The official results will certainly not be certified for several weeks).

Donald Trump campaigning

What happens next?

This year, we could find ourselves in a situation where both sides may declare victory on election night if the popular vote is close. Trump has said that he will declare victory if he looks like he’s “ahead” on Tuesday night.

We won’t get an official result on election night due to the incredibly high number of mail-in ballots, thought to be at least double what it was in 2016. Therefore, the election will most likely continue into the rest of the week.

Businesses in New York, Washington and Los Angeles have been seen boarding up windows this weekend, with mass civil unrest expected regardless of the result. Irrespective of who wins or loses, we do know that this presidential campaign will likely go down in the history books as one of the most divisive and polarising in recent history.