Republican Rick Scott (pictured), the state's governor until January 2019 when his term expires, accused his rival Bill Nelson of orchestrating "fraud to try to win this election"
Washington (AFP) - Florida has made a troubling return to the election spotlight 18 years after the drama that launched George W Bush's presidency, as the state braces for race recounts amid tit-for-tat accusations of fraud.
Two major contests in the southeastern state, for governor and US Senate, hung in the balance Friday, three days after the contentious midterm elections that saw Democrats seize control of the House of Representatives from President Donald Trump's Republicans.
Most US political races have already been settled. But Florida's ballot chaos -- rife with intrigue and Trump's accusation of abuse by officials in Democrat-heavy counties -- raises fresh questions about why the world's most powerful democracy is incapable of producing swift and accurate election results across all 50 states.
Florida is not alone. In neighboring Georgia, the Democratic candidate for governor initiated legal action to ensure all votes were counted in her contest.
In Arizona, hundreds of thousands of ballots were still left to be counted in a fierce US Senate battle that has Democrat Kyrsten Sinema leading Republican Martha McSally by a single percentage point.
With Florida's developments raising partisan tensions to fresh highs, Trump weighed in to allege a major corruption scandal was brewing.
"What's going on in Florida is a disgrace," Trump told reporters.
"Bad things are going on in Broward Country, really bad things," Trump added, referring to a Democrat-heavy county where officials were slowly counting votes including absentee and provisional ballots.
Florida's Governor Rick Scott, the Republican challenging incumbent Senate Democrat Bill Nelson, filed a lawsuit alleging fraud after his lead narrowed.
Nelson, accusing Scott of trying to suppress votes, fired back with a lawsuit of his own to block steps that would reject thousands of mail-in ballots.
Their race, and the one for governor, appear headed for mandatory recounts, which would further delay a final outcome.
"Every Floridian should be concerned there may be rampant fraud happening in Palm Beach and Broward Counties," Scott said.
Trump concurred, telling reporters that Scott "easily won, but every hour it seems to be going down."
Scott's lead on Friday stood at 14,848 votes out of 8.2 million cast, a margin of just 0.18 percent.
Nelson hit back. "Scott is abusing the full force of his public office as governor to stop a complete and accurate counting of all the votes in Florida," he said.
- 537 votes -
The US Senate's top Democrat fumed about Trump's pressure on the race.
"In a democracy, no one -- not even the President -- can prevent the lawful counting of votes," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer tweeted.
"We will not allow him or anyone else to steal this election."
In a victory for Scott, a Broward County judge reportedly set a 7:00 pm (0000 GMT) deadline for county officials to turn over all voter data, arguing they failed to meet legal requirements.
Broward was at the heart of Florida's bitter legal brawls in 2000. That year's recounts were halted by the US Supreme Court, and George W Bush defeated Al Gore by 537 votes in Florida, giving him the edge in the electoral college and handing him the White House.
Rancor was spilling into governors' races, where Andrew Gillum in Florida and Stacey Abrams in Georgia were aiming to become the states' first African-American leaders, but the contests were tilting in favor of their Republican rivals.
State law mandates a recount if the difference in a race is within 0.5 percent. If the margin is within 0.25 percent, as it stood in the Senate race, a hand recount -- slower and more thorough than by machine -- is ordered.
Under Florida's election timeline, preliminary returns are due on Saturday, while official final returns -- after any recounts -- would need to be completed by November 18.
- 'Highly irresponsible' -
As tensions mounted, a few dozen pro-Scott protesters crowded outside Broward County elections headquarters as Republicans warned of fraudulent ballots being added to vote tallies.
David Lublin, a professor of government at American University, dismissed suggestions of corruption, saying the latest statements by Trump and Scott "are highly irresponsible."
Broward County officials were simply taking deliberative steps to count all ballots, including absentee and provisional ones, he said.