Ever since the 2000 presidential race and the infamous hanging chads, Florida has played an outsized role in American politics, its 29 electoral votes often being the deciding factor on Election Day. Donald Trump and Barack Obama won Florida on their way to the White House, as did George W. Bush in that controversial 2000 race and then again four years later. As NBC’s Tim Russert famously said on election night in 2000, “Florida, Florida, Florida.”
This year promises to be no different, but with one possible plot twist. Florida could well give us a new president on the night of Nov. 3, perhaps deciding the election as early as 7:30 or 8 p.m. Or it could muddle the race between Donald Trump and Joe Biden for days—or maybe even weeks—to come.
Here is the reason: Florida, like many other states this election cycle, has seen a record-setting surge in advance voting. But unlike most of those other states, the advance votes cast in Florida should be tallied in time to be officially recorded on election night, shortly after the polls close at 7 p.m. (The Panhandle part of the state will close an hour later.)
And if Joe Biden wins Florida, the race is over. With Florida’s 29 Electoral College votes in his column, Biden will almost certainly be our 46th president; there is absolutely no path to victory for Donald Trump that does not include winning the Sunshine State. As Barack Obama told a Biden/Harris campaign rally in Miami this past weekend, “If you bring Florida home, this thing’s over. I won’t have to wait for the results. I want to go to sleep knowing we’re going to have a president fighting on our behalf.”
If Trump wins Florida, however, settle back and settle in for the long haul. That’s because Biden has several other paths to victory, but they all include winning states whose final results will almost certainly not be known on the night of Nov. 3.
One factor that might tell us which way Florida will go is how the advance voting breaks. In 2016, those early votes went for Hillary Clinton by 6 percentage points. (Trump carried the late-reporting vote by 12 percentage points, and thus the state itself.) If Biden exceeds that percentage this year, particularly if he does so by double digits, it will signal a very good night for the Biden campaign. As Joe Scarborough, the host of MSNBC’s Morning Joe and a former Florida congressman, said this week, referring to several bellwether counties on the state’s Gulf Coast, like Pasco and Lee, whose votes are expected to be recorded by around 7:15 p.m., “If Donald Trump is underperforming by 10 or 15 percent, compared to what he did four years ago, in those counties, it’s not just bad news for him in Florida, that’s bad news for him across the country.”
Here is a look at the other key states for this year’s election, and how long it might take for each of them to count their votes.
Michigan: Hillary Clinton lost this state by just 11,000 votes, a nightmare result that continues to haunt Democratic voters four years later. Biden has a strong lead this year (and he and Barack Obama are scheduled to campaign there together this weekend). But it’s almost certain that the state’s vote will not be known on Nov. 3. That’s because Michigan state law does not allow mail-in ballots, even those that arrive well before Tuesday, to be counted until the morning of Election Day. Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson recently estimated that two-thirds of the state’s vote in 2020 will be cast by mail, and she predicted that the earliest the results might be known is Friday, Nov. 6. Earlier in the election cycle, appearing on Meet the Press, Benson said, “We should be prepared for this to be closer to an election week as opposed to an election day. The bottom line is we are not going to have the full results and a counting of all of our ballots on election night. We already know that.”
Wisconsin: This is another state that Clinton unexpectedly lost to Trump but that polls suggest is solidly in the Biden camp this election cycle. This year’s voting, though, has already been muddled by a Supreme Court ruling that only ballots received by the end of the day on Nov. 3 will be counted, reversing a lower-court decision that the state could continue to count any mail-in votes that arrived as late as six days after the election. The ruling raised alarms among Democrats that many of their supporters’ votes would not arrive in time, and prompted a quick get-out-the vote effort to encourage more people to deliver their ballots in person. But Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers said he expects that Wisconsin will be able to report its vote within 24 hours of the polls closing. “I believe that we will be able to know the results of the Wisconsin election, hopefully that night and maybe at the latest the very next day,” Evers said at a press briefing earlier this month. “I know there’s lots of ballots to count, but I think we’re in a much better position to count those than we have been in the past.”
North Carolina: In North Carolina, where early voting has also been heavy, state officials will be able to count mail-in ballots in the days leading up to Nov. 3, and are expected to announce those results at around 7:30 p.m. That early vote, based on polls, is expected to go for Joe Biden, giving the former vice president an initial lead. But votes cast in person on the day of the election, where Donald Trump is believed to have the edge, won’t be counted until later that night. Election officials have predicted that they will have a result around 1 a.m., depending on turnout.
Pennsylvania: This is an election year like no other for the voters in Pennsylvania, another must-win state for Trump. Not only is the state allowing anyone to vote by mail in a general election for the first time, but all the state’s polling places will also have new voting machines, almost guaranteeing Election Day glitches. Moreover, like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania has been embroiled in a court case that’s challenged the way its votes are tallied. In a rebuke to a challenge by state Republicans, the Supreme Court let stand a ruling that allows mail-in ballots to be counted up to three days after Election Day, which could mean potentially thousands of new votes will be added to the candidates’ tallies in the days following Nov. 3. (As of this week, roughly 2.6 million ballots have been sent out, but only about 520,000 have been returned.) Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar recently told CNN that if the race is close (and polls indicate it is toss-up at the this point), she expects “it will be a matter of days” before election officials will be able to call a winner for Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes.
Texas: The unexpected big prize on Election Day could be Texas and its 38 electoral votes. This is a state that hasn’t gone for a Democrat presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter in 1976, but that polls show is solidly in the toss-up category in the waning days of the 2020 election. That’s largely due to the astonishing early turnout in the state, which is expected to favor Biden. If Biden takes Texas, he would be the next president, even if Trump wins back every other state he won in 2016, including Florida. But, as with North Carolina and Florida, in-person voting on Nov. 3 is expected to lean Republican, and those votes will be counted after the ones that were cast in advance, so there could a swing from one candidate to another as the night progresses. Given the huge, record-setting turnout, local election officials are predicting that the state’s results won’t be known until well past midnight and perhaps not until the next day.