What to expect with the Texas vote count

Chuck Lindell
Austin American-Statesman
Valerie Rogers works as a ballot-by-mail hand delivery clerk at the Travis County Clerk’s Office at the Nelda Wells Spears Building on Oct. 19.
Christopher Maxwell and Aaron Young of Snyder commercial glass service installs plexiglass for a 7-Eleven door front in downtown Austin, Monday, before the election.
Christopher Maxwell of Snyder commercial glass service prepares sheets of plexiglass before installing them on a 7-Eleven door front in downtown Austin Monday afternoon.

Texas polls closed at 7 p.m. Tuesday, but officials caution that Election Day results will take hours to compile — and extremely close races could take almost a week to resolve.

Some of the uncertainty is the result of an unprecedented number of mail-in ballots during the pandemic and heavy voter interest in the presidential election. But long-standing Texas election laws, human nature and geography will play a role as well.

First, it’s important to note that vote counting doesn’t end on Election Day in Texas:

• Mail-in ballots that are postmarked by Tuesday, Nov. 3 will be counted if they arrive at county offices before 5 p.m. Wednesday.

• Ballots mailed by military and overseas voters will be counted if they arrive before the close of business this coming Monday, Nov. 9.

• And provisional ballots — cast by voters whose registration was in question or who did not have acceptable identification — will be counted for those who visit their voter registrar’s office within six days of the election to correct the situation.

“We'll count everything we have in our hands on Election Day, but more votes come after that,” said Keith Ingram, director of the Texas secretary of state’s elections division.

“So if anything's close, what we always tell people when we get a call after Election Day (about a tied race) is, you might have a tie, but you don’t have one yet,” Ingram said.

In 2016, approved provisional ballots and late-arriving mailed ballots added about 74,000 votes to the Election Day totals, he said.

“I don’t know how 2020 will compare to 2016 on that score. It's one of the things that I'm going to be watching pretty carefully,” Ingram said.

Last-minute voters

Another factor that typically delays the vote count is the Texas law that allows voters to cast a ballot if they’re in line when polls close at 7 p.m. That can add hours of delay because each polling site cannot deliver its votes to the central counting location until the last voter is done.

Processing times vary by county, but in Travis County it takes about two hours to count and report a voting site’s ballots, County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir said.

One saving grace, DeBeauvoir said, is the pandemic means no 2020 polling places will be open in grocery stores, which were notorious for late-arriving voters who could keep sites open past 10:30 p.m.

“Don’t wait until the last minute. Don’t be the person who shows up at 6 o’clock,” DeBeauvoir said. “Make a plan, pick a place that's not crowded and get it done.”

Election officials also worry that lines and wait times will be longer than usual because, thanks to a new law, the 2020 election is the first in over a century without straight-ticket voting in Texas. In 2018, about two-thirds of voters cast straight-ticket ballots, using a one-step option to select all candidates for a single party instead of voting for each candidate individually, a much longer process.

There also are more races to count than usual because many local elections were delayed from May until Tuesday because of the pandemic, Ingram said.

Election Day also lasts an hour longer in the far western corner of the state, where El Paso and Hudspeth counties — and their 490,000 registered voters — are in the Mountain time zone, putting poll closing times and results an hour behind most of Texas.

A jump on counting

Officials hoped a surge of early ballots would mean shorter lines and faster vote counts on Election Day. Almost 9.68 million votes had been cast by mail and in person by the time early voting ended Friday, or 57% of registered voters.

To help, state law gives county election officials a head start on counting, particularly for mail-in ballots, which require much more time to process. Signatures on the outer envelope must be matched to the signature on the application to vote by mail. Voter registration must be verified. The inner envelope must be opened to remove the ballot, which gets unfolded and smoothed for the counting machines.

In counties with more than 100,000 residents, mail ballots can be counted as soon as early voting ends.

Ballots cast during early voting can be counted after polls open on Election Day.

All results are kept confidential until polls close at 7 p.m.

Harris County, the state’s most populous, already had begun processing mail-in ballots so they were ready to count after polls opened on Tuesday, County Clerk Chris Hollins said.

“Early vote and vote-by-mail results will be released early in the evening,” said Hollins, who expected a “relatively normal” election night.