The US presidential election hung in the balance on Wednesday, with a handful of close-fought states set to decide the outcome in the coming hours or days, even as Donald Trump falsely claimed victory and made unsubstantiated allegations of electoral fraud.
President Trump and his Democratic rival Joe Biden both still have possible paths to reach the needed 270 Electoral College votes to win the White House, as states keep counting mail-in ballots that surged amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Opinion polls had given Biden a strong lead nationwide for months, but they had shown closer races in battleground states, and the vote did not produce the stinging verdict against the Republican president that the Biden camp had hoped for.
Biden, 77, said in the early hours he was confident of winning once the votes are counted, and urged patience. Trump,74, appeared at the White House soon after to declare victory.
"We were getting ready to win this election. Frankly, we did win this election," he said, before launching an extraordinary attack on the electoral process by a sitting president. "This is a major fraud on our nation. We want the law to be used in a proper manner. So we'll be going to the US Supreme Court. We want all voting to stop."
Trump provided no evidence to back up his claim of fraud and did not explain how he would fight the results at the Supreme Court, which does not hear direct challenges.
Voting concluded as scheduled on Tuesday night, but many states routinely take days to finish counting ballots. Huge numbers of people voted by mail because of the pandemic, making it likely the count will take longer than usual.
The next president will take on the raging disease, which has killed more than 231,000 people in the United States and left millions more jobless, amid a political climate marked by racial tensions and bitter polarization.
The trio of "blue wall" states that unexpectedly sent Trump to the White House in 2016 - Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin - remained too close to call. Biden held a slight lead in Nevada, where officials said they would not update the count until Thursday.
Two Southern states, Georgia and North Carolina, were also still in play; Trump held leads in both. A win for Biden in either one would narrow Trump's chances considerably.
Biden's victory in Arizona - both Fox News and the Associated Press projected he would win the state - gave him multiple pathways to the White House.
If he holds onto Nevada, he could secure the presidency by winning the Midwestern states of Wisconsin and Michigan, where he held narrow leads on Wednesday, even if he loses Pennsylvania.
Trump's most likely path goes through Pennsylvania; if he wins that state, he would secure re-election if he also held onto the Southern states and won at least one Midwestern state.
Officials in Michigan and Georgia said on Wednesday they expected the states to complete their counts by day's end.
World leaders were in limbo as they waited for clearer results, with most avoiding weighing in amid the uncertainty.
In global markets, investors moved to price a greater chance of US policy gridlock.
Biden leads 224 to 213 over Trump in the Electoral College vote count, according to Edison Research.
Biden's hopes of a decisive early victory were dashed on Tuesday evening when Trump won the battlegrounds of Florida, Ohio and Texas. But the former vice president said he was confident he could win by taking the three key Rust Belt states.
"We feel good about where we are," Biden said in his home state of Delaware. "We believe we're on track to win this election."
During the final days of the campaign, Trump had suggested he would claim victory if ahead on election night and seek to halt the count of additional ballots.
"The president's statement tonight about trying to shut down the counting of duly cast ballots was outrageous, unprecedented, and incorrect," Biden's campaign manager Jen O'Malley Dillon said in a statement.
Before his White House appearance, Trump slammed his opponent, saying in a tweet, "We are up BIG, but they are trying to STEAL the Election. We will never let them do it. Votes cannot be cast after the Polls are closed!" Twitter swiftly tagged the tweet as possibly misleading.
"It's not my place or Donald Trump's place to declare the winner of this election. It's the voters' place," Biden said on Twitter in response to the president.
It was not clear what Trump meant by saying he would ask the Supreme Court to halt "voting." The high court does not hear direct challenges but instead reviews cases that have worked their way up from lower courts.
However, legal experts have said the election outcome could get bogged down in state-by-state litigation over a host of issues, including whether states can include late-arriving ballots that were mailed by Election Day.
TEAMS OF LAWYERS
Even before Tuesday, the 2020 campaign saw a historic number of lawsuits across dozens of states, as the coronavirus pandemic forced election officials to prepare for an election like no other. Both campaigns have marshaled teams of lawyers in preparation for any disputes.
The Supreme Court previously allowed Pennsylvania to move forward with a plan to count ballots mailed by Nov. 3 that arrive up to three days later, but several conservative justices suggested they would be willing to reconsider the matter. State officials planned to segregate those ballots as a precaution.
Ahead of the election, Trump had said he wanted his latest US Supreme Court appointee, Amy Coney Barrett, confirmed by the Senate in case the court had to hear any electoral dispute. Democrats had criticized the president for appearing to suggest he expected Barrett to rule in his favor.
Trump has repeatedly said without evidence that widespread mail-in voting will lead to fraud, although US election experts say fraud is vanishingly rare.
YOU'VE GOT MAIL, PENNSYLVANIA
In Pennsylvania, Democratic Governor Tom Wolf said the state still had to count more than a million mail-in ballots and called Trump's remarks a partisan attack. According to Edison Research, more than 2.4 million early ballots were cast in the state, with 1.6 million by registered Democrats and about 555,000 by Republicans.
The election will also decide which party controls the US Congress for the next two years, and the Democratic drive to win control of the Senate appeared to be falling short. Democrats had flipped two Republican-held seats while losing one of their own, and six other races remained undecided - Alaska, Maine, Michigan, North Carolina and two in Georgia.
Trump's strong performance in Florida, a must-win state for his re-election, was powered by his improved numbers with Latinos.
For months there had been complaints from Democratic Latino activists that Biden was ignoring Hispanic voters and lavishing attention instead on Black voters in big Midwestern cities. Opinion polls in key states showed Biden underperforming with Latinos in the weeks leading up to the election.
Edison's national exit poll showed that while Biden led Trump among nonwhite voters, Trump received a slightly higher proportion of the nonwhite votes than he did in 2016. The poll showed that about 11% of African Americans, 31% of Hispanics and 30% of Asian Americans voted for Trump, up 3 percentage points from 2016 in all three groups.
Trump's chaotic four years in office have been marked by the coronavirus crisis - which he has consistently sought to downplay - an economy battered by pandemic shutdowns, an impeachment drama, inquiries into Russian election interference, racial tensions and contentious immigration policies.
Biden is making his third attempt to win the presidency after a five-decade political career including eight years as vice president under Trump's predecessor, Barack Obama.