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Don’t jump to conclusions as Tuesday election night results come in

By Matthew Watkins, The Texas Tribune

Don’t jump to conclusions as Tuesday election night results come in” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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This year’s midterms have been tense in Texas: The prohibition of abortion, the school shooting in Uvalde and the ongoing crisis at the border have raised the stakes for many voters. Conspiracy theories and falsehoods about the trustworthiness of elections have made life difficult for election administrators. And control of the U.S. House and Senate are on the line. That could mean a combustible election night. If you’re planning on watching the votes tick in, here are a few things to keep in mind.

How The Texas Tribune is covering this election

Our Election Day coverage begins bright and early as the polls open at 7 a.m. We’ll have reporters in Austin, El Paso, McAllen, Brownsville, Laredo, Lubbock, Dallas, San Antonio, Houston, Fort Worth and Lufkin tracking whether voting is going smoothly and highlighting any major problems at the polls. If you see something that doesn’t look right at the polls, you can notify us directly at

When the polls close at 7 p.m. Central time, the results will start to come in. (They’ll close one hour later in El Paso and Hudspeth counties, which is on Mountain time.) This year, our results page will be powered by Decision Desk HQ, a firm that collects, organizes and reports election night results. The numbers will be gathered from the Texas secretary of state’s office, along with county offices across the state. Decision Desk will use polling, turnout models, demographic information and other data to track the races. Once it can confidently project who the winner is in a statewide or congressional race, Decision Desk will call that race for a particular candidate. We’ll mark those calls on our results page, and for the big races, we’ll write stories noting that declaration and share the news on our social media platforms. You can read more about our approach to election coverage here.

Races to watch

You’re probably familiar with the top of the ticket: Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, versus his Democratic challenger, Beto O’Rourke. Beyond that, there are several hugely important statewide election positions up for grabs. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Republican who presides over the state Senate, is up against Democrat Mike Collier. And Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton, whose aggressive lawsuits against the Biden administration and social media companies make him nationally influential, faces Democrat Rochelle Garza. There are also statewide races for agriculture commissioner, land commissioner, comptroller, state Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals. In all statewide races, the Republicans are heavily favored.

The most tension will likely be in South Texas, where three congressional races are gaining national attention. U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a moderate Democrat from Laredo, faces Cassy Garcia. U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, a Democrat who is running in a new district after Republicans targeted him in redistricting, faces U.S. Rep. Mayra Flores, a Republican who won a special election for the seat earlier this year after the incumbent Democrat resigned. And Republican Monica De La Cruz and Democrat Michelle Valejo are squaring off for Gonzalez’s old seat, which was redrawn to give Republicans a better chance to win it. If Republicans can win two of those seats, it will be a boost to their efforts to win over Hispanic voters. If they win all three, it’ll be a political earthquake.

The Texas Legislature’s redrawing of district lines last year has limited the amount of competitive races elsewhere on the ballot. Besides the three South Texas seats, no other congressional races are being hotly contested. In 2020, people thought Democrats might gain control of the Texas House. This year, it’s unlikely the partisan breakdown will change all that much from the GOP’s 85-65 advantage in the state House and 18-13 advantage in the state Senate.

One interesting local race to keep an eye on: Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo has been viewed as a future star of the statewide Democratic Party — but local Republicans are hopeful that Alexandra del Moral Mealer can pull off a shocking upset and unseat her this year.

Keep this in mind while watching the results

If you’re keeping a close eye on the results, you should follow one overarching rule: Don’t jump to conclusions. Recent political fights around voting and election administration have had subtle but significant impacts on how election night will likely play out. Keep those in mind as you evaluate who is going to win and whether you think anything alarming is going on.

One reason you should exercise caution: Voting habits seem to be shifting. In the past, voters who cast their ballots by mail were generally more likely to be Republicans than Democrats, in part because mail-in voting is open to anyone over 65, and older voters lean Republican. In 2018, 42% of people who voted by mail had mainly voted in GOP primaries, compared with 31% Democratic primary voters, according to numbers crunched by GOP voter data expert Derek Ryan.

But Donald Trump’s railing against mail-in voting in 2020 and subsequent efforts to cast doubts on the security of mail-in ballots seem to have convinced more Republicans to vote on Election Day. A Quinnipiac poll of Texas in late September found that 64% of voters who planned to vote by mail planned to vote for O’Rourke. Fifty-three percent of people who said they intended to vote early said they would vote for O’Rourke. Meanwhile, 75% of voters who said they intended to vote on Election Day said they intended to vote for Abbott. That’s only one poll — and it’s risky to draw conclusions from just one poll. But it suggests that Democrats may want to temper their enthusiasm if the numbers for O’Rourke and other Democrats look strong early in the night. It’s possible that only the early votes will have been counted — and that the Election Day numbers might look much worse for their candidates.

Spectators should also exercise caution if they see anything that looks a bit irregular. Elections in Texas are decentralized. The work of setting up polling stations and tabulating votes is done by the counties. And in a state with 254 counties, minor problems are almost certain to emerge. An overworked poll worker types a number wrong into a computer. The power goes out at a polling place. An election worker doesn’t understand a rule about voter ID requirements.

None of those, on their own, are confirmation of wrongdoing. These are often signs that elections are messy in Texas, and that there’s room for improvement — not necessarily indications of widespread fraud. Counties have systems in place to make sure every vote is counted and errors are fixed. Many simple mistakes will be quickly corrected.

But grumbling often happens. Look at Harris County, where a lot of drama often occurs. Vote counting often goes on for hours there, usually into Wednesday morning. Nearly every year, there are concerns raised by state workers, local partisans and journalists on Twitter about how long it will take or is taking. But keep in mind that Harris County has a larger population than Kentucky. It’s about the geographic size of Delaware. And it has more than 700 voting centers spread out among its 1,700 square miles. It’s of course going to take a long time to gather and count its votes.

Other counties, too, will surely have issues pop up that will make vote counting take longer there. Many times, those minor issues will generate little notice because they won’t affect how the major races are called.

But if a race is especially tight, it’s possible we won’t know the winner on election night. In fact, it’s a guarantee that all votes won’t be counted by the end of Nov. 8. In Texas, absentee voters can send their ballots on Election Day, as long as their ballots are postmarked by 7 p.m. and received by the county election office by 5 p.m. the next day. Completed ballots from overseas military voters are accepted if they’re received up to five days after Election Day. Usually that doesn’t matter, because the number of ballots we’re talking about is relatively small — not enough to flip the election. But if a race is close enough, it might make a difference.

And if a race is close enough, candidates are allowed to request a recount. The state law around recounts is a bit complex: If the margin of victory is less than 10% of the number of votes the leading vote-getter received, the second-place finisher can call for a recount. (For instance, if candidate A gets 2,000 votes and candidate B gets 1,850 votes, the margin of 150 is less than 200, which is 10% of 2,000, so candidate B can call for a recount.) If a recount is requested, it could take days or weeks to determine a final result.

Waiting past Election Day to learn the outcome is not all that unusual. This has happened multiple times in Congressional District 23 in recent years. In the 2020 Republican primary runoff, Raul Reyes was down by 45 votes at the end of election night. One month and seven days later, he conceded after his deficit had been narrowed by only six votes.

In the 2018 general election, Democrat Gina Ortiz Jones trailed Republican incumbent Will Hurd by around 1,000 votes. She went to court to extend the canvassing deadline in the race as she sought to learn more about provisional ballots that had been cast in the race — and even attended the congressional orientation while the matter was being litigated. Ultimately, she conceded nearly two weeks after Election Day.

Disclosure: The Texas secretary of state has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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