Democrat Joe Biden edged closer to victory in the U.S. presidential race on Thursday as election officials tallied votes in the handful of states that will determine the outcome and protesters took to the streets.
President Donald Trump alleged fraud without providing evidence, filed lawsuits and called for recounts in a race yet to be decided two days after polls closed.
The race was coming down to close contests in five states. Biden held narrow leads in Nevada and Arizona while Trump was watching his slim advantage fade in must-win states Pennsylvania and Georgia as mail-in and absentee votes were being counted. The Republican president clung to a narrow lead in North Carolina as well, another must-win for him.
Trump had to win the states where he was still ahead plus either Arizona or Nevada to triumph and avoid becoming the first incumbent U.S. president to lose a re-election bid since fellow Republican George H.W. Bush in 1992.
Edison Research gave Biden a 243 to 213 lead in Electoral College votes, which are largely based on a state’s population. Other networks said Biden had won Wisconsin, which would give him another 10 votes. To win, a candidate needs 270 votes.
The counting and court challenges set the stage for days if not weeks of uncertainty before the Electoral College meets on Dec. 14 and the next president is sworn in on Jan. 20.
With tensions rising, about 200 of Trump’s supporters, some armed with rifles and handguns, gathered outside an election office in Phoenix, Arizona, on Wednesday following unsubstantiated rumors that votes were not being counted.
In Detroit, officials blocked about 30 people, mostly Republicans, from entering a vote-counting facility amid unfounded claims that the vote count in Michigan was fraudulent.
Anti-Trump protesters in other cities demanded that vote counting continue. Police arrested 11 people and seized weapons in Portland, Oregon after reports of rioting, while arrests were also made in New York, Denver and Minneapolis. Over 100 events are planned across the country between Wednesday and Saturday.
By early Thursday, Biden had 3.6 million more votes than Trump nationwide, but margins were razor-thin in several states. In Wisconsin, Biden led Trump by roughly 21,000 votes out of 3.3 million cast. In Georgia, Trump led by 19,000 votes out of nearly 5 million cast.
Biden, 77, predicted victory on Wednesday and launched a website to begin the transition to a Democratic-controlled White House.
Trump, 74, has long sought to undermine the credibility of the voting process if he lost. Since Tuesday’s Election Day, he has falsely declared victory, accused Democrats of trying to steal the election without evidence and vowed to fight states in court.
U.S. election experts say fraud is rare.
Trump’s campaign called for a Wisconsin recount – which he would be entitled to given the slim margin there – as well filing lawsuits in Michigan and Pennsylvania to stop vote counting. Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, in charge of elections, called the Trump team’s lawsuit “frivolous.”
Trump’s campaign filed a lawsuit in Georgia to require that Chatham County, which includes the city of Savannah, separate and secure late-arriving ballots to ensure they are not counted.
It also asked the U.S. Supreme Court to allow Trump to join a pending lawsuit filed by Pennsylvania Republicans over whether the battleground state should be permitted to accept late-arriving ballots.
The maneuvers amounted to a broad effort to contest the results before counting has concluded.
“They are finding Biden votes all over the place – in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan. So bad for our Country!” Trump posted on Twitter.
Biden said every vote must be counted. “No one’s going to take our democracy away from us, not now, not ever,” he said on Wednesday.
If victorious, Biden will face a tough battle to govern, with Republicans appearing poised to keep control of the U.S. Senate, which they could use to block large parts of his legislative agenda, including expanding healthcare and fighting climate change.
U.S. stock index futures jumped on Thursday as investors bet that potential gridlock in Washington could reduce the chance of major policy changes, although concerns remained about the risk of a contested election.
The contentious election aftermath capped a vitriolic campaign that unfolded amid the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 233,000 people in the United States and left millions more jobless. The country has also grappled with months of unrest involving protests over racism and police brutality.
The United States set a one-day record for new coronavirus cases on Wednesday with at least 102,591 new infections, according to a Reuters tally.
Supporters of both candidates expressed anger, frustration and fear with little clarity on when the election would be resolved.
Trump defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016 after winning crucial battleground states even though she drew about 3 million more votes nationwide.
Republican candidates have won the popular vote only once since the 1980s, though they have won three out of seven presidential elections during that period due to the Electoral College system.