updated 11/2/2010 8:01:05 AM ET 2010-11-02T12:01:05

In at least one race every election night, someone in a newsroom somewhere in America utters a phrase that raises a curtain on weeks of litigation, conference calls, and scrutinizing disputed ballots:

"We could be going into overtime, folks."

    1. National overview
    2. Full Senate results
    3. Key House results
    4. Full Gubernatorial results

This election year, with public polling showing jump balls in dozens of House contests and a handful of key statewide races, will probably be no different.

The prospect of recounts is a looming possibility not lost on both parties.

The Republican National Committee has launched a fundraising website called "" that warns potential donors of consequential recounts like the 2008 Minnesota contest that ended with Democrat Al Franken's swearing-in. "We can't just win," the site proclaims. "We have to win BIG!”

Video: Who will be Election Day's big winners? (on this page)

Even if there are no legal challenges or recounts, it's likely that the results of several contests will not be clear on the morning of November 3rd. And there are plausible scenarios in which the balance of power in the Senate — where Republicans must net 10 seats to regain the majority — is not known for days after Election Day.

Any of the nation's close races could end up subject to legal challenges, but here's a primer on three states where out-of-the-ordinary election rules could make for a complicated aftermath if the vote counts are microscopically close.

Another Evergreen State recount?
In Washington state, for example, Republican Senate candidate Dino Rossi — who was on the losing end of a grueling 2004 gubernatorial recount — could be in for another close election on Tuesday when he tries to oust three-term Democratic Sen. Patty Murray.

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Under Washington's vote-by-mail system, ballots are counted if they are postmarked by midnight on Election Day, so some votes won't be counted until Wednesday or Thursday. Washington law requires a recount if the margin of victory is less than one thousand votes and also less than one-fourth of one percent of the total number of votes cast.

A McClatchy/Marist poll conducted last week showed Murray up over Rossi by just one percent.

Six years ago, Rossi's initially-declared victory in the governor's race was reversed eight weeks later after hundreds of misplaced ballots from heavily Democratic King County were discovered. Democrat Christine Gregoire was declared the winner by a margin of just 133 votes out of a total of more than 2.8 million votes cast.

Katie Blinn, the assistant elections director and an attorney in the Washington Secretary of State's office, said that since 2004 the state has implemented new procedures "to prevent probably one of the biggest issues that occurred in 2004: that ballots were misplaced."

Video: Candidates brace for voters’ message (on this page)

Blinn said that both parties in the state also learned from the 2004 election to be prepared to mobilize voters who failed to properly fill out their ballots before mailing them. Under the vote-by-mail procedure, a voter completes the ballot and then signs and dates an outer mailing envelope before sending it to a county election office. If a voter fails to sign the mailing envelope for the ballot, the count office will contact him by mail so he can sign it before the results are certified — 21 days after Election Day.

Democrats quickly mobilized to contact voters with signature issues in 2004. "That was a very pivotal post-Election Day campaign effort that they made that probably changed the outcome of that election. This year both parties are geared up to contact those voters (who fail to sign their envelopes)," Blinn said.

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Neither Murray nor Rossi’s campaign was willing to say anything about the steps they are taking to be ready for a recount or disputed election. But Rossi hinted during a conference call with reporters last week that his campaign needs to be prepared, "just in case."

"If this is a very close one, we're going to have people at all the appropriate auditors' offices and watching the King County records and the others with the appropriate people to make sure that everything is done according to the rules," he said. "In '04 we just weren't as prepared as we know we need to be now. Just in case, just in case."

A nailbiter in Illinois
The Senate race in Illinois is one of the tightest contests in America, with recent polls showing two- and three-point leads for Republican Mark Kirk.

Illinois rules do not mandate recounts if the margin between the two candidates is within a certain percentage, but a candidate can request a "discovery recount" if he or she receives 95 percent of the vote total of the candidate declared the winner. The challenging campaign can then pick 25 percent of precincts statewide to be examined.

"Following the discovery recount, if they've found something they wish to pursue. They may file an election contest in the court," explained Ken Menzel, who serves as legal counsel at the Illinois State Board of Elections.

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The Senate contest in the state is further complicated by a ballot quirk that places the names of Democrat Alexi Giannoulias and Republican Mark Kirk on two separate places on the ballot. Their names are listed as options for two ballot questions — one to choose the state's new, full-term senator and one to choose the lawmaker who will serve the final weeks of the Senate term vacated by Barack Obama — who left the seat for the White House — and Roland Burris, who is retiring.

Menzel says he expects that the vote totals for the two contests will not exactly match, but that it is highly unlikely that the two measures would yield victories for two different candidates. The quirky ballot has been well-publicized in the state, he said, and the more important of the two questions — the one addressing the full term — is the first on the ballot.

There's something about Lisa
Whatever the outcome in the Alaska Senate race, it will go down into the history books as one of the most bizarre in election history, a saga in which nepotism, revenge, litigation, citizen activism, and orthography all play their parts.

Read the NBC News guide to the 2010 midterm elections
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Sen. Lisa Murkowski, appointed in 2002 by her father, former senator Frank Murkowski to fill the vacancy he left when he resigned to become governor, is trying to become only the second senator to win as a write-in candidate in Senate history. (The first: South Carolina's Strom Thurmond in 1954.)

Murkowski lost the August Republican primary to Tea Party favorite Joe Miller, who is backed by Sarah Palin. Palin beat Frank Murkowski in the 2006 GOP primary on her way to becoming governor.

But with Republican voters divided between Miller and Murkowski, Democrat Scott McAdams has a chance to win a race Democrats had written off only a few months ago.

For Murkowski to win, enough of her supporters will need to spell her name correctly — and the standard for determining how close the spelling need be to "Murkowski" could well be the focus of post-election court battles.

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Lt. Gov. Craig Campbell, who is the overseer of elections in Alaska, told The Associated Press last week that officials do not expect that minor spelling errors will invalidate write-in ballots Murkowski.

Does Alaska law provide standards on how to judge the voter's intent, if the spelling is close to the correct name, but not actually correct? "Not that I am aware," said Gail Fenumiai, director of the Alaska Division of Elections. "This would be a determination made by myself with consultation of our legal department."

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On Oct. 18, the Division of Elections began offering early voters a list of the approved write-in candidates, if they asked for help in spelling a candidate's name. Both the Democratic and Republican parties in Alaska went to court to stop elections officials from giving the list to voters who needed help in spelling.

But the Alaska Supreme Court ruled Friday that voters who need help spelling the name of a write-in candidate can look at the list — but only if they specifically ask for help. The list may not be taken in the booth by the voter, Fenumiai said.

(Murkowski has tried to tutor voters by airing one of 2010's cleverest TV spots. In a mock spelling bee, a student asks, "Could you please use that in a sentence?" and the spelling bee proctor replies, "To re-elect Lisa Murkowski, you must fill in the oval and write in her name." The student then spells "Murkowski" correctly as the letters appear on the TV screen.)

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With the crib sheet available, prospects were looking brighter for Murkowski. But in an eleventh-hour burst of citizen activism, the list of certified write-in candidates suddenly grew to than 150 people last week. Instigated by Anchorage radio talk show host Dan Fagan, a Miller supporter, Alaskans trooped in to state elections offices to meet Thursday's deadline for signing up as a certified write-in candidate. "It is our civil duty… this is the most honorable thing you can do", Fagan told listeners, in remarks reported by the Anchorage Daily News. Fagan's bosses canceled his show Friday after a representative of Murkowski's campaign complained.

Among the names now on the approved list of write-in candidates along with Murkowski's: Lee Hamerski and Lisa M. Lackey.

The deadline for counting the ballots is November 17. There is a mandatory recount only if there is a tie. Anything other than a tie requires a recount application from one of the candidates.

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Photos: Election night

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  1. Ohio Gov.-elect John Kasich celebrates a victory during the Ohio Republican Party celebration in Columbus, Ohio. (Tony Dejak / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, celebrates early election returns in Anchorage on Nov. 2. With Murkowski are from left, sons Matt and Nick Murkowski and longtime friend Hope Neslon. (Michael Dinneen / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. California Gov.-elect Jerry Brown celebrates his election win during a rally with his wife, Anne Gust, in Oakland, Calif. (Paul Sakuma / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. California Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman concedes to Democrat Jerry Brown during a campaign party in Universal City, Calif. (Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Supporters of California Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman react after conceding the Governor's race to Democrat Jerry Brown during a campaign party in Universal City, Calif. (Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Terri Sewell celebrate her victory with her cousin Kindall Sewell- Murphy as the first African American woman to be elected to for the 7th Congressional District seat in Alabama, with family and friends in Selma, Ala. (Butch Dill / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. U.S. Senate candidate Sharron Angle with her husband, Ted Angle, concedes defeat to supporters at the Nevada Republican Party's election results party at the Venetian Resort Hotel Casino after she lost to incumbent U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Robyn Beck / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Supporters of Nevada Republican Party Senate candidate Sharron Angle react after news projected Democratic Party candidate Harry Reid as the winner of the race for the Nevada senate seat at the Nevada Republican Party's Election Night event in Las Vegas, NV. (Robyn Beck / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., speaks during the Nevada State Democratic election night party after defeating Sharron Angle to win re-election, in Las Vegas. (Jae C. Hong / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Angela Webb of Alabama, left, and Leah Stith of Virgina react after U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was announced as the winner over Republican challenger Sharron Angle at the Nevada State Democratic Party's election results party at the Aria Resort & Casino at CityCenter in Las Vegas. In one of the nation's most closely watched races, Reid retained his seat for a fifth term against Angle, a Tea Party favorite. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. House Republican leader John Boehner breaks into tears during his speech as he addresses supporters at a Republican election night results watch rally in Washington, D.C. (Jim Young / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Supporters of Republican Senator Marco Rubio celebrate at his victory party in Coral Gables, Florida. (Gary I Rothstein / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. U.S. Senator John McCain is reflected on a teleprompter as he celebrates his victory with his daughter Meghan after defeating Democratic candidate Rodney Glassman in Phoenix, Arizona. (Joshua Lott / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Tammy Tideman of Mesa, Arizona and Carla Schwarte of Phoenix, Arizona hold "Fire Pelosi" sighn as Sen. John McCain speaks to the crowd during an Arizona Republican Party election night event in Phoenix, Arizona. (Laura Segall / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Democrat Bill White walks off the stage after addressing his election night party at the Hilton Americas Hotel in Houston. The former Houston mayor conceded defeat to incumbent Republican Gov. Rick Perry in the race. (Smiley N. Pool / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. President Barack Obama makes an election night phone call to Rep. John Boehner from his Treaty Room office in the White House residence. (Pete Souza / The White House) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Tea Party Patriots at an election night party celebrate an announcement that Republicans have gained the majority in the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday, November 2. (Ann Heisenfelt / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Terri Scofield of Medford checks her email for updates from the Board of Elections as she awaits elections results at the Suffolk County Democratic Committee Headquarters in Islandia, N.Y. (Kathy Kmonicek / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand D-NY celebrates her re-election at a rally in New York. Disenchanted U.S. voters swept Democrats from power in the House of Representatives and increased the ranks of Senate Republicans on Tuesday in an election rout that dealt a sharp rebuke to President Barack Obama. (Shannon Stapleton / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Harris Blackwood, communications director for Georgia Gubernatorial candidate Nathan Deal, holds a broom, claiming a sweep for Republicans at the Georgia Republican Party's election night watch party in Atlanta. (Brant Sanderlin / Atlanta Journal & Constitution / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Republican U.S. Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell, a favorite among the conservative Tea Party movement, appears at an election night rally in Dover, Delaware. Democrat Christopher Coons won the U.S. Senate race in Delaware on Tuesday, keeping for Democrats a seat once held by Vice President Joe Biden. (Jason Reed / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Michele Bachmann and other Republicans gather at the Sheraton Bloomington to await election results. (Tom Wallace / Star-Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Kentucky Republican U.S. Senate candidate and Tea Party favorite Rand Paul acknowledges supporters with wife Kelley at his election night rally in Bowling Green, Kentucky, November 2. (John Sommers II / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., arrives to celebrate his re-election with supporters at the Martin Luther King Jr. Democratic Club in New York. (Jason Decrow / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Supporters Rachel Smith, right, and Genevieve Fugere watch the returns of Democratic Mike McIntyre D-N.C., 7th House District at his election night headquarters at the Holiday Inn in Lumberton, North Carolina. (Jim R. Bounds / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Election worker Janet Smith processes ballots at the King County Elections headquarter in Seattle, Washington. Among the races and ballot initiatives here is the US Senate race between incumbent Senator Patty Murray and challenger Republican and former gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi, which is so close it could take several days to determine the winner. (Stephen Brashear / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Republican candidate for governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley, right, watches election results come in after the polls closed from a hotel restaurant with her husband Michael, left, son Nalin, 9, rear center, and daughter Rena, 12, right, in Columbia, South Carolina. (David Goldman / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Florida Governor Charlie Crist thanks supporters after conceding his defeat in his campaign for U.S. Senate to Republican Marco Rubio during a campaign party in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Brian Blanco / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Diana Reiner of Lansdale, Pennsylvania, left, and Keli Carender of Seattle, Washington, gather with a group known as the Tea Party Patriots for a 'Reclaiming the Capitol' rally at the US Capitol. The group planted a "special edition" of the historic Gadsden flag, the US flag, and the Tea Party Patriots banner into the ground in Washington, DC. Midterm elections are being held across the United States with many highly contested races that could threaten the political futures of numerous incumbents as well as change the balance in the Senate and House of Representatives. (Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Jamey Stehn leaves the Hope Social Hall after casting his ballot in Hope, Alaska. Stehn and the other 200 or so residents of Hope use the one-room log building built in 1902 as their polling place and activity hall. (Michael Dinneen / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Volunteer Justino Mora, left, joins members of the mariachi band "Los Munecos," and other Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles volunteers to urge immigrant voters to vote early in the California election in Los Angeles, California. The sign reads in Spanish: "Everybody to Vote." (Damian Dovarganes / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Congressman Joe Sestak speaks with a reporter after casting his ballot in Gradyville, Pennsylvania. Sestak faces Republican candidate Pat Toomey in the midterm election. (William Thomas Cain / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Sloan Atkins, 6, left, helps her mother, Coleen Atkins, as her sister Reese Atkins, 4, helps their father Anthony Oliva, right, fill out their ballots in West Miami, Florida. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Sen. John McCain and his wife, Cindy, address the media outside a polling station in Phoenix as Apollo, a dog owned by McCain's son, Jimmy, licks the camera. (Matt York / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. A member of the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers fills out his ballot at a polling station inside the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers Spellman Room in Ossining, New York. (Jessica Rinaldi / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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Video: Candidates brace for voters’ message

  1. Transcript of: Candidates brace for voters’ message

    LAUER: Well -- yes. Well, don't look at me. Let's begin with our DECISION 2010 coverage of today's midterm elections. We've got all the key battleground states covered. Plus, we're going to talk to the chairman of the Democratic National Committee and the Republican Governors Association .

    MATT LAUER, co-host: But we begin this morning with NBC 's Kelly O'Donnell on Capitol Hill . Hi , Kelly .

    KELLY O'DONNELL reporting: Hi, Matt. Well, it is finally here, and voters get their say today at polling places around the country. And after this long season and an angry mood in the country, it seems more likely that Democrats could hold onto the Senate . But for the House of Representatives , after today it could be under new management. In Ohio , today's election has lyrics.

    O'DONNELL: Country legend Hank Williams Jr. set the stage for the top Republican who could become the next speaker of the House .

    Representative JOHN BOEHNER: Here we come, Ohio !

    O'DONNELL: John Boehner will return to Washington tonight.

    Rep. BOEHNER: Look out!

    O'DONNELL: He called out President Obama , who, in a get out the vote message to Latinos , referred to Republicans as enemies.

    President BARACK OBAMA: Instead of saying we're going to punish our enemies...

    O'DONNELL: Boehner defended voters upset with Washington .

    Rep. BOEHNER: Mr. President, that word isn't enemies. They're patriots.

    O'DONNELL: Today Nevada voters could topple the most powerful Democrat in the Senate .

    Ms. MICHELLE OBAMA: And we love Harry Reid !

    O'DONNELL: Harry Reid is struggling against tea party conservative Sharron Angle . The first lady made her pitch for Reid personal.

    Ms. OBAMA: I am proud to be here supporting him today. Now, Harry 's not just a great leader, Harry is a good man.

    O'DONNELL: Democrats in Washington state are nervous today for three-term incumbent Senator Patty Murray .

    Senator PATTY MURRAY: I need your help and support to make sure I'm back there fighting for you, for middle class families.

    O'DONNELL: Some polls give the edge to Republican Dino Rossi , who has made this a close race, promising to cut government spending.

    Mr. DINO ROSSI: It's kind of clear you're on a fiscal cliff, and people understand that, they get it.

    O'DONNELL: Back home in Delaware , the vice president's on defense.

    Vice President JOE BIDEN: Block these folks. Don't let this happen. Go out and vote!

    O'DONNELL: Joe Biden found a warm and fuzzy way to warn against voting Republican.

    Vice Pres. BIDEN: Folks, these are a different breed of cat. This is not your father's Republican Party .

    O'DONNELL: While in West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin has tried to appear much more conservative, and President Bill Clinton seemed to approve.

    Former President BILL CLINTON: I told -- I told Joe on the way in, I can't figure out why the tea party hadn't endorsed him.

    O'DONNELL: And today President Obama 's taking more of a behind-the-scenes approach, working the phones, trying to help get out the vote . He's done a couple of radio interviews, calling in to a range of different kinds of local and national stations, from urban to pop, even doing an interview with Ryan

    Seacrest. Meredith: All right, Kelly O'Donnell , thank you very much .

    MEREDITH VIEIRA, co-host:


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