Opinion | How to Follow the Election, in Eight Steps

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1. Vote. Politics is a participation sport, not a spectator sport. If you haven’t yet voted, don’t make yourself a vague promise that you’ll do so at some point today. Come up with a specific plan right now, including where and when you will vote today.

2. Ignore the noise. You’re going to hear rumors today — about long lines, no lines, bad weather, good weather and exit polls. Ignore the rumors, especially any about exit polls. Just ask President John Kerry.

[Listen to “The Argument” podcast every Thursday morning with Ross Douthat, Michelle Goldberg and David Leonhardt.]

3. Be prepared. Rather than spending the afternoon reading rumors on social media, go for a walk or a bike ride. Or read a book. Or get some work done. And if you absolutely must think about politics, study up on the big races tonight.

Daniel Nichanian, a political scientist, has put together a handy tip sheet listing the most important elections and ballot initiatives. You can print your own version or follow along as Nichanian updates an online version.

4. The early results. The polls will close in parts of Indiana and Kentucky at 6 p.m. Eastern, which will offer early clues about the Democrats’ chance to retake the House. The challenger in Kentucky’s sixth district is Amy McGrath, who burst on the scene with one of my favorite ads this year. Her race is a tossup. Democrats don’t need it to retake the House, but they need to win it or some similar races.

5. The governors’ races. Democrats are expecting to make big gains in governor’s offices tonight. “If the election goes as expected, the GOP’s grip on policy at the state level is likely to be severely weakened,” Perry Bacon Jr. writes, in FiveThirtyEight’s governors’ preview. Two closely watched races are in Georgia and Florida, where most polls close at 7 p.m.

State legislatures matter too, and Alan Greenblatt of Governing magazine has an overview.

6. The main events. Democrats are favored to retake the House, and Republicans are favored to hold the Senate. But any combination of congressional control is possible.

The best place to watch the results will be the dashboards created by my colleagues from The Times newsroom. They’ll be analyzing the returns and producing geographically adjusted results that are much more meaningful than the raw vote counts that still dominate television coverage. You’ll be able to find these dashboards linked from The Times’s home page, on both mobile and desktop.

And, yes, the needle will be back.

Twitter is also a good way to get real-time analysis. I recommend the feeds of Nate Cohn, Jonathan Martin, Dave Wasserman, Amy Walter, Nate Silver, Rachel Bitecofer, Harry Enten and Kyle Kondik.

7. The other big elections. There is a chance that congressional control will be fairly clear by 9 p.m or 10 p.m. Eastern. But it’s more likely to remain uncertain. In that case, rather than checking on the needle every 60 seconds, you may want to look back at some of the major ballot initiatives, which cover voting rights, health care, criminal justice and more.

Floridians will be voting on whether to restore voting rights to 1.5 million people who have been convicted of felonies. It’s the most important voting-rights initiative in years. And it’s one of at least 15 voting-rights initiatives on the ballot across the country. Wendy Weiser and Max Feldman of the Brennan Center have an overview.

On health care, three conservative states — Idaho, Nebraska and Utah — are voting on whether to expand Medicaid, and a fourth — Montana — is deciding on whether to continue its expansion, Julie Rovner of Kaiser Health News explains. On criminal justice, multiple states are considering reforms, as The Appeal details.

8. Get some sleep. If the race for House or Senate is close, it may extend late into the night — or into tomorrow and beyond, as ballots are counted in California and elsewhere. So I encourage you to turn off your phone and television at some point and go to bed.

As I wrote in my column this week, American democracy is being challenged in ways I never expected. The one silver lining is that many people are responding by getting involved. There will still be much more to do starting Wednesday, whatever the election results.

Today is a very big deal. But it’s not the end of the story.

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David Leonhardt is a former Washington bureau chief for the Times, and was the founding editor of The Upshot and head of The 2020 Project, on the future of the Times newsroom. He won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, for columns on the financial crisis. @DLeonhardt Facebook

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