It could be a late night for the candidates in the Houston mayoral election, if early voting results are any guide.

Three candidates, City Councilman Peter Brown, former City Attorney Gene Locke and City Controller Annise Parker, all received roughly a quarter of the 60,000 early votes. A fourth candidate, Harris County Board of Education member Roy Morales, was behind in fourth place with 15 percent of the votes, according to results.

The vote split makes it likely that, as expected, the race will be headed to a runoff election next month between the two candidates who receive the most votes.

The race, which has three lesser-known candidates who weren't expected to make impact, is the first competitive mayoral contest in six years. Bill White, the term-limited current mayor and U.S. Senate candidate, won re-elections in 2005 and 2007 with more than 80 percent of the vote. 

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My former Houston Chronicle colleagues, Brad Olson and Jim Pinkerton, reported today about the light turnout turnout across Harris County, and also the recent back-and-forth in the race, which has been difficult for political insiders to handicap.

We'll see what happens as more returns come in.

UPDATE (9:54 p.m.): With about 60 percent of the precincts reporting, Parker appears headed to the runoff, but it's still unclear whether Locke, who has a slight lead over Brown, will join her. (The politics of a Parker-vs.-Locke race would be fascinating, by the way). I should also mention that Morales, who has run for city office before, is doing well, receiving about one in five of the votes so far. He's the Republican major candidate in what is, officially, a nonpartisan election held in a Democratic city. Of course, the vote totals could change as more results come in.

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