What you should watch — and what you should ignore — while the votes are being counted in Texas

On Election Day, The Texas Tribune will have reporters and photographers in Austin, Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, El Paso and Washington, D.C., tracking whether voting is going smoothly and highlighting any major problems at the polls. Credit: Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The Texas Tribune

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The presidential race in Texas looks more competitive than it has been in decades. More than 8 million Texans have already voted early. Many candidates will opt for social distancing instead of their normal results watch parties. And there's a decent chance we won't know many of the results by the time everyone goes to bed. If you're planning on watching the votes tick in, here are a few things to keep in mind.

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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 and photographers in Austin, Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, El Paso and Washington, D.C., tracking whether voting is going smoothly and highlighting any major problems at the polls. We've also partnered with ProPublica's Electionland, which monitors tips from readers and a voter protection hotline and flags any leads for our reporters and editors. If you see something that doesn't look right at the polls, you can share a tip here or notify us directly at tips@texastribune.org.

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, 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.

Races to watch

You are probably familiar with the top of the ticket: Donald Trump versus Joe Biden in the race for president. Texas has long been a reliably Republican state, but there are signs that Biden could make it competitive here. The stakes are huge: It would be very difficult for Trump to win nationally if Biden were to win in Texas.

Next on the list is the race for U.S. Senate, where incumbent Republican John Cornyn faces Democrat MJ Hegar.

Beyond those marquee statewide races, there are 12 U.S. House seats being seriously contested by both parties this year — a far higher number than usual. Two — Congressional District 7 and CD-32 — are seats Democrats flipped in 2018 and that Republicans would like to win back. The other 10 — CD-2, CD-3, CD-6, CD-10, CD-21, CD-22, CD-23, CD-24, CD-25 and CD-31— are GOP-held seats.

And perhaps the most consequential races on the ballot are the ones that will determine who controls the Texas House. Republicans hold the majority, but Democrats are looking to flip the chamber. If you're interested in tracking that battle, keep an eye on these seats:

  • The 12 Democratic seats that Republicans hope to win back: House District 45, HD-47, HD-52, HD-65, HD-102, HD-105, HD-113, HD-114, HD-115, HD-132, HD-135 and HD-136.
  • The 22 seats held by Republicans that Democrats hope they can flip: HD-14, HD-26, HD-28, HD-29, HD-32, HD-54, HD-64, HD-66, HD-67, HD-92, HD-93, HD-94, HD-96, HD-97, HD-108, HD-112, HD-121, HD-126, HD-129, HD-133, HD-134 and HD-138.

If Democrats can add a net of nine seats, they will break the Republican monopoly on control of the levers of state government. If you want to track this on election night, our results page will mark the battleground districts for the U.S. House and Texas House with stars. Or you can click or tap the "Races to Watch" buttons to filter by the key districts.

There are a couple other important races to watch. If a Democrat were to win a statewide race for the first time in decades, it's possible that it would happen in one of the lower-profile races for railroad commissioner or one of the state's two high courts.

When will we know who wins?

It's been a common refrain across the country that people should prepare themselves in 2020 for election week, not election night. Many states expanded mail-in voting during the coronavirus pandemic, and election workers in some states can't count mail-in ballots until after the polls close. That means it could take days in some states to know the full results. But neither of those factors comes into play as much here, because Texas didn't expand mail-in voting and allows counties to begin processing absentee ballots before Election Day.

In past statewide elections, we've known who was going to win fairly early in the night. In 2016, many news organizations had declared Trump the winner in Texas by a few minutes after 8 p.m. And even in Texas' relatively close U.S. Senate race in 2018, Republican incumbent Ted Cruz was the clear winner against Democrat Beto O'Rourke by around 9:30 p.m.

But every year, certain races are undecided late into the night — and sometimes for several days later. That happens for one of two reasons. First, something can simply slow down the counting. In Texas, elections are run mostly by the counties. They determine the polling places, collect the ballots and count them on election night. That's 254 entities reporting their own results. Odds are that something will slow things down in at least one — bad weather, a power outage or computer problems — and delay the results in a state House race or a local race.

Second, we know that a small number of votes won't be counted on election night, so some races will simply be too close to call. 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 by Nov. 9. 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.

That's especially true because more people who are eligible to vote by mail requested ballots this year, likely because of the coronavirus pandemic. In Harris County, for instance, about 115,000 people applied to vote by mail in 2016. In 2020, the state's most populous county had mailed around 250,000 ballots. Most of those will come in before Election Day — as of Wednesday, nearly two-thirds had already been returned — but there's a good chance the number of stragglers will be higher than normal.

What about recounts?

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 weeks to determine a final result. This happened last August with the Republican primary runoff in Congressional District 23, when 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.

How will you know when you're safe to assume it's over?

We at the Tribune and our partners at Decision Desk will be tracking the margins, how much of the Election Day vote has been counted and where votes are still outstanding to get a sense of whether the outcome of a race is still in doubt. We'll also be watching whether candidates concede, since just because you can call for a recount doesn't mean it's worth the time and expense to do so. We'll be very careful with the language we use and won't say a race is over unless we're supremely confident that it is.

What to keep in mind as the results come in

The vast majority of the votes in Texas will be cast before Election Day. In 2016, 73% of votes were cast early. This year, that share could be higher. Most counties will report their early votes in one big batch, within about an hour of when the polls close.

It's important not to jump to conclusions based just on those numbers. That's because even how people vote is increasingly divided along partisan lines. In October's University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll, 25% of Democrats said they planned to vote by mail, while only 5% of Republicans said they would vote that way. Conversely, only 15% of Democrats said they'd vote on Election Day, compared with 33% of Republicans. So if a Democrat — whether it's Biden or your local state representative — holds a small lead after early voting, it might be too soon to declare a victor.

So sit back and let the results come in. We've waited months to see what happens in Texas this election cycle. A couple more hours — or even days — won't hurt.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin 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.