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Sunday, April 21, 2024

How to Watch the Election 2020 Results Tonight—and Beyond

Election Day is finally here.

There are as many ways to follow—or ignore, it's fine!—election results as there are fun-size candy bar varietals. Some people will have five different screens open so that no electoral map or needle goes unmonitored. Others are happy to tune out, turn in, and wait for some news in the morning. You do what’s right for you and your mental health.

But unlike eating a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup, there are definitely some wrong ways to watch an election. This year presents more unknowns than usual. Record levels of mail-in voting, along with different state rules for when those ballots can be processed and counted, mean it may take longer for votes to be counted. And experts have warned that different voting behaviors between the parties this year, with Democrats favoring mail and Republicans opting to vote in person, could mean the outlook for some states shifts as all the votes are tallied.

Election Day is already a huge target for misinformation campaigns, and frankly it’s easy for innocent misunderstandings to go viral too. Wherever you turn for information, make sure it’s a source you can trust to deliver the facts. If you’re hanging out on social media, think before you share.

How to Watch

The earliest state polls close at 6 pm East Coast time; most of the news you'll hear before then is just noise. Outlets like FiveThirtyEight, Bloomberg, and The New York Times all have handy hour-by-hour guides to which states close their polls when, and what that might mean for the presidential race.

Not coincidentally, around this time is when many networks will start their primo Election Day special coverage. It’s the biggest news night of the year, and every channel wants in. If you have cable, satellite, or a streaming service subscription, you’ll have no shortage of options. If you don’t, many networks will have livestreams available for free online, as well.


CNN is making its live coverage available without a log-in on CNN.com as well as its mobile apps for iOS, Android, and smart TV devices until 4 pm ET on November 4. ABC News, NBC News, and CBS News are all streaming their live election coverage online into tomorrow. (Fox News also has a livestream but requires logging in with either a TV provider or streaming service.) PBS is hosting its NewsHour election special live on its website, its social media accounts, and the PBS Video App for mobile and smart TV devices. For Spanish language coverage, both Univision and Telemundo will provide live election coverage on their respective digital platforms beginning at 7 pm ET. If you're an iOS widget fan and want no hope of escape from the tallies as the flood in, NBC News now offers one to put live election results right on your home screen.

ABC News, CBS News, NBC News, Fox News, and CNN all have decision desks: independent, nonpartisan teams that analyze vote and exit poll data in order to make projections about the likely winner. What people do with that information on air, of course, can be another matter. When Fox News’ decision desk called Ohio for Barack Obama in 2012, for example, Karl Rove quite memorably had a hard time accepting it.

Many other news organizations base their coverage on the Associated Press, which has called winners in US elections since 1848. This year, it will track results for over 7,000 races across the US. Unlike some other decisions desks, the AP doesn't predict winners; it declares them when it considers a loss mathematically impossible. The organization explains its methodology in more detail on its website.

Social Media

Given all the unknowns heading into this election, and the likelihood that states will need more time to count all the votes, experts are on high alert for misinformation and premature declarations of victory. Most social media platforms have said they will take steps to label, restrict, or remove misinformation about the election, but it’s safe to assume they won’t catch everything. (In fact, some Instagram users have reported waking up Tuesday to an in-app reminder that "Tomorrow is Election Day," whoops!) Read and watch with a critical eye.

YouTube announced last week that it would deploy a new “information panel” for election-related videos and search results, noting that results may not be final and linking to a live election tracker on Google. The company has also pledged to “elevate authoritative sources, including news publishers like CNN and Fox News,” in search results and recommendations for what to watch next. As polls close tonight, the platform will start displaying a panel of live election coverage towards the top of users’ homepages. Of course, for much of the day, YouTube’s homepage will have prominently featured ads from just one candidate: Donald Trump. The Trump campaign bought up the space back in February; unlike with TV and radio, there is no regulation requiring online platforms to give candidates equal time. Google has since said it will pause election-related ads once polls close today, citing its sensitive events policy, and YouTube specifically has said it would stop offering full-day "masthead" ad buys to avoid a repeat of today's Trump takeover.

The other social media giant, Facebook, will also temporarily halt political ads after tonight. And like Google, the social network is also pointing users to authoritative sources of election information and the vote-counting process. The company says that once polls close it will link to its Voting Information Center at the top of both Facebook and Instagram, and apply labels to candidates’ posts. Should a candidate or party declare victory prematurely, Facebook says, it will add more information to those labels; the company has historically been reluctant to remove posts by politicians, even if they violate community standards. Facebook is also continuing to apply labels to posts that discuss the legitimacy of the election and voting methods like mail-in ballots.

Twitter has also indicated that it will label tweets with claims about election results before they’re officially called, “prioritizing the presidential election and other highly contested races where there may be significant issues with misleading information.” The company is going even further, though, for tweets from high-profile accounts like politicians, or ones that go viral. In those cases, Twitter will take additional steps to limit amplification, by hiding the message, keeping it from algorithmic recommendation, and restricting retweets, likes, and replies. (Users can still quote-tweet, however.) The differing approach between Facebook and Twitter was already on display when Trump posted a false claim about voter fraud to both platforms on the eve of the election.

Facebook, through a partnership with Reuters, is getting its data from a firm called Edison Research. Google is working with the Associated Press for its election results. (TikTok says it is also working with the AP.) Twitter, meanwhile, said Monday that it will consider an election result official if announced by a state election official or by at least two national news outlets with independent decision desks:

Twitter content

This content can also be viewed on the site it originates from.

One thing social media is great for, however, is surfacing voices and events that might not otherwise make it onto your radar via the usual media gatekeepers like cable news. I’ll leave you with one example for this Election Day, courtesy of the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Jonathan Lai: The Office of the Philadelphia City Commissioners (85 YouTube subscribers) is livestreaming the “pre-canvass and canvass” process for getting mail-in and absentee ballots ready for counting.

Pennsylvania is going to be one of the most closely watched states in the country tonight and, likely, the next few days. Legal fights and baseless claims from the president have already been out in force; across the country, storefronts are boarded up as Americans brace for chaos. But you wouldn’t know that from this livestream. The comments are off, the audio is quiet. It’s already been playing for hours. Like Norwegian slow TV or the Christmas yule log, there's something soothing about watching this work.

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