Once again, it is the most exciting time of year: Election Day, when the entire future of the free world hinges on how well-received a thirty second political ad was in Iowa. Thanks to the miracle of the internet, we will be able to view results in more or less real time, with a variety of graphic aids showing counties turning various colors, as well as a host of commentary and cheering, ranging from the vapid to the insightful.
Of course, all of this takes place in a midterm election, meaning the most exciting office in the land, the presidency, is not at stake. What is at stake is all the House seats, one-third of the Senate seats, most of the Governorships, and countless other offices across the land, as well as local issues big and small. Although all of this stuff is important to somebody, there is a consensus about what the most important elections of the day are.
The consensus is that the control of the House of Representatives will not change during this election, and there has been little written about the House races. House races tend to be hard to poll, and they are usually not followed closely. The real question this year is whether Republicans can win back control of the Senate, which has been Democratic since 2006. 2008, the election that brought Barack Obama into office, also brought in a number of senators on his coattails, senators that are now defending their seats after some years in which the Democratic Party has faced setbacks. There are perhaps ten of the senatorial races which are competitive, and they will be decided across the course of the night.
This then, is our timeline of what to look for, give by Eastern Standard Time:
4:00 AM: Elections close in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. The residents of the CMNI get to choose one non-voting delegate to the House of Representatives. Far from the day's most momentous race, but it does come in first.
6:00 PM: Indiana and Kentucky are the first states to close, finishing polling at 6 P.M. Eastern Time, for the parts of the states in the Eastern Time zone. Indiana doesn't have a senatorial election, but Kentucky does: between Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and challenger Alison Grimes. McConnell is expected to win by a small but comfortable margin, but if this race turns into either a close race or a landslide, it might presage other contests over the course of the night.
7:00 PM: The rest of Indiana and Kentucky finish their polls, and a few Eastern states also close, including Georgia, Virginia, and most of Florida. Georgia has been showing a small but consistent lead for the Republican candidate, and Virginia has been showing a small but consistent lead for the Democratic candidate. If either of these states show a surprise, the night might get exciting. Florida also has a gubernatorial race that is competitive.
7:30 PM: Ohio, North Carolina and West Virginia. In a Presidential election, this would be an important time, but this year it is mostly important for North Carolina's senatorial race.
8:00 PM: A host of East Coast states, including Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and most of Michigan close their polls at 8:00 PM local time. At the same time, much of the midwest and south closes their polls at 7:00 PM local time, including Illinois, Missouri, Alabama and most of Texas. During a presidential election year, this is when we would start to see the race taking shape, but this year the closest thing to watch will be the senatorial race in New Hampshire.
It is also the time when we might start to see the House races going in an unexpected direction. The majority of competitive US House seats are across the exurbs of the Mid-Atlantic and the Midwest, so if a number of house seats start to go towards one party or the other in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois or Michigan, it might be a sign that the House of Representatives is going to shift this year.
This is also when Maine's complicated three-way gubernatorial race will begin to resolve.
8:30 PM: Arkansas closes. Although not normally an important state, Arkansas is home to a somewhat-competitive Senate race.
9:00 PM: On the East Coast, New York closes its polls, one of the two states that stays open until 9 PM local time. New York, however, doesn't have a senatorial race this year. However, this is when a number of states across the central and mountain time zones close. Louisiana, Kansas, and Colorado, all expected to have close Senatorial races, all close their polls. Kansas has an independent candidate running in a race where the Democrat has dropped out, and the race is one of the closest in the nation. Wisconsin does not have a senatorial election, but does have one of the night's closest-watched gubernatorial races in the reelection campaign of Scott Walker.
10:00 PM: Iowa is the state to watch here, as it hosts one of the last competitive senatorial races of the night.
11:00 PM: The Pacific Coast closes. California, the largest state in the nation, finishes voting, but like many other large states, is not voting for a Senator. The most interesting thing here to watch (at least for many of us) is whether Oregon will follow Washington's lead in legalizing Cannabis
Midnight-1:00 AM: Most of Alaska closes at midnight, with the Aleutian islands closing at 1 AM. Alaska is notoriously hard to predict politically, and has had close polling in both its senatorial and gubernatorial races. Alaska is also voting on Cannabis legalization. So it might actually be worth staying up until 1 AM this year.
1:00 AM: Also, American Samoa closes.
It is hard to tell when the picture will come together on election night. In 2012, the Presidential election was more or less decided when Virginia and Ohio were decided. This year, most of the competitive senatorial races are a time zone or two to the west. It could be that as soon as 8 PM, a clear picture will emerge. More likely, not until 9 PM, with the return of results from Colorado, Louisiana and Kansas, will we know what is going on. And given that Iowa and Alaska might be the deciding states, and that results take a while to tabulate, it might be sometime in the early AM Wednesday that election-watchers will finally figure out what is going on.