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Monday, 6 November, 2000, 22:38 GMT
An election-watcher's guide
Al Gore at election rally
But who will be cheering on Tuesday night?
By US affairs analyst Gordon Corera

One of the most exciting things about this election is that even the most experienced election-watchers do not really have a clue how things will unfold on the night.

Results will come in state by state from across America as polls close and as we move across the time zones in the country.

If one candidate has managed to pull ahead, then it could be very clear within a few hours who the victor will be.

More likely though, we are set for a nail-biting night.

Timing

If there were one state to watch on election night, it would probably have to be Florida.

George W Bush electioneering
Bush is concentrating on the key state of Florida
With 25 electoral votes, it is one of the biggest prizes in the race and the battle over the state has been intense.

Its polls also close at 1900 EST (2400 GMT).

An hour later we get a whole slew of states including two big ones - Michigan and Pennsylvania.

If one candidate wins these two and Florida, they should be on their way to the Oval Office.

Also look out for little Delaware which should come in about the same time - it may have only 3 electoral college votes but it has picked the winner in the last 12 elections.

Even split

Another scenario has the early swing states dividing evenly between Gore and Bush.

If this happens, grab a cup of strong coffee and stay up because the fun will be only just beginning - it means the election could go right down to the wire and depend on states like Oregon and Washington on the west coast.

Supporters at a Bush rally
They have to rely on the media for the results
Projected results for each state are usually "called" almost as soon as the polls close but some may take longer.

That is because, unlike elections in Britain and other countries, US presidential elections do not have formal on-the-night counts or results' announcements.

In fact, many states do not officially declare their results until weeks after polling day.

Instead, most of the figures you see on election night are either based on unofficial counts or on exit polls - people being interviewed as they leave voting centres.

Media role

The US television networks, around whom election-night coverage centres, usually make their "call" for each state based on these exit polls.

The media is allowed to "call" the state for one of the candidates as soon as the polls close.

But they will only do this only if their figures indicate a clear winner.

Al Gore electioneering
Even Gore might not be able to stay awake until Washington closes

If the exit polls do not show a clear winner (for instance, if the gap between candidates is less than 10%) then the result will be announced "too close to call" and the media will wait for precinct results to come in.

Some precincts report their results very quickly because they use electronic voting whilst others use paper ballots and could take hours to get the information in.

Worst case scenario

So, if a state like Michigan, which does not have much electronic voting, is close, then it could be hours before we start getting an idea of what is happening.

But if the result depends on Washington state, where polls don't close until 0500 GMT, then you may as well go to bed.

Half the votes in this state are submitted by post and the majority of these are not even counted on the night but over the following days.

Even the candidates might not be able to stay awake that long.

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See also:

06 Nov 00 | Americas
Hillary bids for historic win
03 Nov 00 | Americas
Democrats accused of 'dirty tricks'
04 Nov 00 | Americas
US race: The foreign policy debate
04 Nov 00 | Americas
Gore's home-ground challenge
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