Before tonight’s election returns arrive, you can get an early peek at which Americans are voting by following preliminary exit poll results after 5 p.m. Eastern time.


Here's everything you need to know about the exits. And make sure to follow Post Polls on Twitter for up-to-the-minute updates tonight and tomorrow! 

* The early voter telephone poll: From last Monday to Sunday, the exit polling firm Edison Media Research has been conducting the exit poll questionnaire over the phone -- including cellphones in some states -- with voters who cast early or absentee ballots.

The national exit poll contains such an early voting component, as do about half of state exit polls. The phone surveys are carried out by dialing randomly generated landline and (in many states) cell phone numbers - similar to other national polls - and asking whether respondents have already cast ballots. The results from these surveys are combined with responses to paper-and-pencil questionnaires collected on Election Day, and then adjusted to reflect the correct proportion of early voters. 

* Polls opening, exit pollsters go to work: Lucky voters at hundreds of randomly selected polling locations across the country will be approached by exit pollsters (not all at once), and asked to complete questionnaires. They’re chosen at random - for example, every 10th or 20th voter walking out of the polling place. The questionnaire asks them how they voted, along with questions about demographics and issues. The interviews will continue throughout the day, but interviewers call in early results throughout the day.

* Network/AP analysts enter quarantine: After being stripped of communications devices, analysts from the major networks and the Associated Press are allowed to view the earliest waves of exit poll interviews. The data are truly preliminary, but give the first quantitative sense of who is voting, what they are thinking about and yes, for whom they’re voting. Because of this tight control on the data, any “leaked” exit polling results floating around the Internet before 5pm are likely phony.

* Preliminary exit poll results publicly released (5 pm-7 pm): Polling analysts rush from the quarantine to deliver briefings to their media brethren, and exit poll subscribers (like The Washington Post) get first look at the data. Until polls close in each state, there are clear restrictions on reporting estimates of HOW voters are voting -- either overall or among subgroups -- so nearly all data released at this point will be -- should be -- describing WHO the electorate is (e.g. the percent are men, independent, under 30), and how they answer substantive questions such as the most important issue in their vote (a guess, anyone?). Take all these results with a big grain of salt, as they are preliminary. Be extra wary of claims that turnout among young voters is way down. Older voters tend to cast ballots - and respond to exit polls - earlier in the day. It won’t be clear until all interviews are in how old or young the electorate actually is.

* Virginia polls close and preliminary vote breakdowns start to emerge (7 pm):  Don’t expect projections at poll closing in competitive states, but soon afterward look for a wave of information about vote breakdowns by group. Keep an eye on the heavily Democratic Northern Virginia as well as the Republican-leaning south and west portions of the state.

* More exit polls, and a bit of advice (8 pm and beyond): The exit poll numbers WILL change. Because the exit poll weights their data to match vote totals when they become available, a double-digit lead for Obama among women could shrink to single digits, or no lead at all, later on in the night. Even after that, remember that the exit poll is still a poll, with a margin of error to boot. The margin of error balloons for vote results among small groups, like Hispanics, Jewish voters and voters under age 30.

More from Washington Post Politics:

The seven most important counties in Election 2012

Understanding the politics of Ohio

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