It could be a long night.
The flurry of Election Day is quickly followed by Election Night, that anxious ritual spent glued to your TV, radio, or smartphone. Experts are saying with an increase of voting by mail and hyper-competitive contests, it could be awhile before we have a final tally.
Texas’s large size and relatively small percentage of mailed-in ballots means only an extremely close statewide race will prevent news outlets from naming a victor on election night. Still, it’s possible.
If You Haven’t Voted Yet …
If you still have a mail-in ballot on your kitchen table, your best bet is to drop it off at your county elections department by Tuesday. Mail ballots have until Wednesday at 5 p.m to arrive, although they need to be postmarked no later than Tuesday and you would be relying on the post office to quickly deliver your ballot.
If you don’t have a mail ballot, your deadline to be in line at a polling place is 7 p.m.
In counties with more than 100,000 people, ballot boards are able to begin processing mail-in ballots 12 days before Election Day. For counties with less than 100,000 people, this can start after the early voting polls close.
Since the early voting period ended on Friday, many election offices around the state have been busy processing in-person early votes. (Not every state does that.)
In Collin County, the data from in-person early voting and processed mail-in ballots will be in a “counting room,” all queued up.
“They’re downloaded onto a media that goes out of the room to another room to upload to the website or the state,” Collin County Elections Administrator Bruce Sherbet said. “Because there are no internet connections in [any] piece of voting equipment, including in the counting station.”
It’s important to keep in mind that Texas has 254 counties and voting systems can vary. The website Verified Voting shows the different types of voting equipment used across the state.
Collin and other large counties will release early voting and accumulated mail ballot results very soon after 7 p.m. The Secretary of State’s office will be collecting and displaying these results as well.
The Great Wait
That initial rush will have to sustain us for a while, though, depending on how late the polls are open.
“We hope they’re late and people are out there voting,” said Toni Pippins-Poole, Dallas County Elections Administrator.
Counties have to wait for everyone in line by 7 p.m. to vote. Then poll workers and site judges must completely close down and clean up. Only then can they return to the county election headquarters with the machines and data.
“We do have to wait until the judges confirm all of their paperwork, pack up and bring those results to our regional site centers,” Pippins-Poole said.
Many counties — including Dallas and Collin — use Vote Centers, which means people can go anywhere in their county to cast a ballot. While that’s convenient for voters, it makes it harder to gauge what percentage of votes have come in for smaller races. Voters in a certain state House district, for example, may have cast ballots at a far away site.
“If Vote Center A is completed and has [Dallas] County voters from different precincts … you’re only gonna see a fraction of voting for that precinct,” Pippins-Poole said.
In other words, we won’t know if all of a precinct’s votes have come in until the entire county is done reporting results from the polls. Depending on how robust turnout is on Tuesday, counting Election Day ballots could stretch into the wee hours of Wednesday morning.
And don’t forget, El Paso is in a different time zone. The deadline to be in line there is 8 p.m. Central Time.
Wait, There’s More!
After counting Election Day votes, Collin County’s Bruce Sherbet said there’s even more to do.
“Election night, when it’s 100% counted, those are called ‘unofficial’ totals,” Sherbet said. “And they’re unofficial because you still have ballots that have to be processed.”
Those include the mail-in ballots that arrive by 5 p.m. Wednesday (with a postmark no later than Tuesday), plus thousands of military ballots, overseas ballots, and provisional ballots. Provisional ballots are used by people who visit the polls, but discover their eligibility isn’t clear or they didn’t bring proper identification.
“If there’s an election that’s 20 votes different, [then] those provisionals and late military and overseas ballots — those could make a difference,” Sherbet said.
That situation is not so far-fetched. Some Texas House races had margins in the low hundreds in the 2018 midterm elections.
The big lesson is, it might take a long time for “official” results, because with a large turnout, vote counting simply takes time. County commissioners will certify resultssometime next week and the state will certify results after that.
Liz Howard, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, cautioned that in the meantime, we could hear some overheated rhetoric from statewide or national candidates.
“If a candidate is behind and they are trying to suggest that there’s a problem, their goal is going to be to make the entire process look chaotic,” she warned.
Howard said while no election is perfect, she has faith in local election officials — professionals with a very specific process for counting all valid votes.