Election night: Big signs to watch for, what they mean, and when you’ll know who won

Election Day is the end of the grueling, costly fight for House and Senate majorities, and for governor’s mansions across the United States.

Democrats need to win 23 more House seats and two more Senate seats to take control of each chamber from the GOP. But there’s no guarantee the winners of the 2018 midterms will be decided on Nov. 6: recounts, run-offs and delays in counting are possible, and even likely in some states.

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Here’s what you need to know as you watch election results, including which states’ polls close earliest, which races could be early bellwethers for control of Congress and where to turn for the latest updates.

Polls close first in these states

The first polls to close on Nov. 6 are in Kentucky and Indiana, where locations shut down at 6 p.m. local time, according to Vox, which has a full list of states’ poll closing times.

But poll closing times across the U.S. vary nearly as much as voters’ political views, with New York and Iowa polls open till 9 p.m. local time. California voting locations close at 8 p.m. local time, but that’s 11 p.m. for East Coast election watchers.

Democrats likely have to hold Sen. Joe Donnelly’s seat in Indiana (which voted decisively for Trump) to win the Senate, meaning an early GOP win there after polls close would strengthen Republicans’ Senate odds. Other pivotal Senate races will be decided as polls close at 8 p.m. Eastern time in Tennessee, Missouri and Texas, 9 p.m. Eastern in Arizona and North Dakota and 10 p.m. Eastern in Montana and Nevada, according to Vox.

Polls close at 7 p.m. Eastern time in much of Georgia, where Democrat Stacey Abrams is running to be the country’s first black female governor against Brian Kemp, Georgia’s Republican secretary of state. Atlanta voting sites shut down at 8 p.m., Vox reports. Anyone in line by the time polls close should be allowed to fill out a ballot.

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Florida’s polls close at 7 local time, according to the Washington Post, meaning they’re open an hour later in parts of the panhandle on Central time. Florida’s ballot features a close Senate contest between incumbent Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson and Republican Gov. Rick Scott, as well as a tight governor’s race between GOP Rep. Ron DeSantis and Democrat Andrew Gillum, the mayor of Tallahassee.

Once polls close, the New York Times, Washington Post and Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight will track results as they come in, as will cable news networks CNN, Fox and MSNBC.

Early signs in suburbs and Trump districts

Former vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine said Virginia’s results could predict whether a so-called “blue wave” of Democratic House wins is real, or if it was just a liberal dream.

“If there’s going to be a wave, some of the first evidence of it is going to come — or not going to come — out of Virginia,” said the Virginia Democratic senator, according to the Washington Post.

Kaine pointed to the suburbs of Richmond, where Democrat Abigail Spanberger, a former CIA officer, hopes to unseat GOP Rep. David Brat. Another competitive race is in the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., where Republican Rep. Barbara Comstock is vulnerable in a district Hillary Clinton won in 2016.

Democrats have little to lose in the House, where few Democratic incumbents face tough re-elections. David Wasserman, of the Cook Political Report, had said Arizona Rep. Tom O’Halleran is the most vulnerable Democrat, though he still rates the seat “likely Democratic,” Axios reports.

Kentucky’s sixth congressional district (in a state where polls close early) has a competitive race between GOP Rep. Andy Barr and Democrat Amy McGrath, a former Marine Corps pilot, the Herald-Leader reports. A Democratic win there could suggest Democrats have a chance in districts Trump easily won.

“If Republicans hold Kentucky-6, which is where we’ll get our first results, that’s not fatal for Democrats, because after all it’s a state Trump won by 15 points,” Wasserman said, according to Slate. “But if Democrats win it, watch out.

Slow counting in California and Utah

Vote-counting can be “notoriously slow” in California, a state with a giant population and a large number of competitive House races, the Washington Post reports. Sprawling, heavily populated Los Angeles County counts its votes at one location, where some ballots arrive by boat or helicopter, according to the Post.

“It’s like a scene out of ‘M.A.S.H,’ ” said Doug Chapin, an adjunct professor of election administration at the University of Minnesota, the Post reports. “The choppers land and people run in and unload the ballots and then load in empty boxes, and the chopper goes back out to get more.”

California Secretary of State Alex Padilla explained at a press conference last week why vote-counting in the state could be slow.

“At a minimum, we don’t have all the ballots in hand until three days after the election,” Padilla said, explaining that ballots postmarked on Election Day are allowed to count towards the final results. “We know that it may take a while, but we’d rather get it right than get it fast.”

Utah may also count votes slowly if there’s a close race (as expected) between Republican Rep. Mia Love and her Democratic challenger, Ben McAdams, the Associated Press reports. That’s because the state has instructed county clerks to wait till the Friday after the election to release more updated vote tallies.

“No matter how often we release them, it seems like people want them more often,” said Justin Lee, state director of elections, according to AP. “I think what people would like to see, and I don’t think it’s practical or feasible, is a live stream of results.”

Run-offs could complicate Mississippi and Georgia races

Both Georgia and Mississippi require run-off elections if no candidate captures 50 percent of the vote on Election Day — and in Georgia, polls suggest a libertarian candidate could draw enough support to keep the Democrat and Republican from clearing that 50-percent threshold in the governor’s race, CNN reports.

In Mississippi, a special election is pitting Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (who was appointed after a retirement) against Democrat Mike Espy and Republican Chris McDaniel. A run-off among the top two vote-getters is likely, because polls show no candidate looks poised to hit 50 percent of the vote on Nov. 6, McClatchy reported in September.