The election may feel everlasting, but on Nov. 8, Americans will go to the polls and pick the next president. Technically speaking, the election ends once Alaska’s polls close (midnight on the East Coast), but results could be projected sooner. At what exact time news outlets will be confident to announce the winner depends on how swing states vote, and how close those results come in.
Generally, polls open between 6 and 7 a.m., then close sometime between 6 and 8 p.m. There are, of course, exceptions. New York has the longest poll hours, with locations open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.
It takes a while to tally all those votes, but exit polling is often used to make predictions about who will win, especially in non-competitive states (which is most of them). Take Illinois, for example, a state that has voted for the Democratic presidential nominee in every election since 1988. With state polls showing Hillary Clinton up by an average of 15 points, the winner of Illinois will probably be announced in a matter of minutes after their polls close.
So the results of most East Coast states will be mostly known by 9 p.m. ET. However, the majority of those results won't stay in the headlines long. That's because, as usual, this election hinges on eleven swing states. If the race is close, but not close enough to warrant a recount, then knowing the winner might come down to Nevada. That's because of all battleground states, Nevada is the only one on Pacific Time. Some polling places don't close there until 8 p.m.,PT (11 p.m. on the East Coast).
There are some fun ways to play around with how early results will be called by manipulating the electoral map. For instance, if Clinton sweeps the eastern swing states, winning Florida, New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania, the election will be "over" at 8 p.m. ET. But if Trump wins Florida, then the results of Nevada and Colorado will be critical to decide the winner. That would likely make it a later night.
Keep in mind, the difference between a projected winner and an established victory can be huge. In 2000, many networks wrongly declared the "winner" of Florida, before results were finalized. At 7:50 p.m., NBC announced Al Gore as the Sunshine State victor, with other networks quickly following suit. Later in the evening, those projections had to be retracted. George W. Bush was eventually declared the official winner of Florida, but not until 36 days later.
News media is loathe to botch projection calls, so the official "winner" designation of Clinton or Trump will probably come no earlier than 11 p.m. ET. Of course, if certain state results are within the margin of error, or if a recount is called for, this Nov. 8 may mirror the election night of 2000. In that case, the election will not be "over" until those recounts are completed, a process that usually takes weeks. Given polling data that shows Clinton leading in a majority of swing states, it is improbable that this election will be that close.
In all likelihood, Americans will know who their next president will be sometime between 11 p.m. ET and midnight on Nov. 8.