Millions of votes still being counted as contest between Trump and Biden narrows to key states
(CNN) -- Millions of legally cast votes are being counted in elections offices around the country as the presidential race between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden comes down to a handful of battleground states.
Biden holds the lead in the Electoral College at this stage in the night, 224-213; 270 electoral votes are needed to become president.
Experts had warned for months that a result may not be known on election night, or even days afterward, as voters voted by mail in record numbers. As of early Wednesday morning, it was still too close to call in Arizona, North Carolina, Nevada, Wisconsin, Michigan, Maine, Georgia and the potentially critical state of Pennsylvania.
Trump won a close race in Florida, which was one of the states Biden had hoped to peel away from the President's 2016 map and has a narrow edge in North Carolina. The former vice president has taken the lead in Wisconsin and is hoping that Arizona, where he has a 5-percentage point lead with 82% of the ballots counted, could be his first victory of the night that turns a red state blue.
With more than 90% of the vote counted in Wisconsin, Biden holds a narrow lead over Trump in that state of just more than 20,000 votes, with all of Milwaukee's vote counted.
The state of Nevada, which Clinton won by a slender margin in 2016, also appeared to be a much closer race than Democrats had expected. With 85% of the votes counted in that state, Biden leads by less than a percentage point.
Increasingly, it appears that the result of the entire election could hinge on whether Biden can restore the Democratic "blue wall" in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, a scenario that could stretch into the coming days as large numbers of mail-in votes are counted.
Biden pulled ahead by a slight margin in Michigan Wednesday morning with 90% of the vote counted.
The clerk of the key suburban Michigan county of Wayne, Cathy Garrett, told CNN election officials are still counting votes, and she would not estimate when officials may conclude. The county is reporting that more than 64% of those cast there have been counted. Wayne County is the largest county in Michigan and includes Detroit and its metro area.
Michigan's Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said in a tweet Wednesday morning that "hundreds of thousands of ballots in our largest jurisdictions are still being counted including Detroit, Grand Rapids, Flint, Warren & Sterling Heights."
The night unfolded as the most unorthodox election night in modern memory. At times it appeared like one candidate or the other was heading for an early win in important states. But batches of mail-in and early votes meant the count often dramatically shifted one way or the other.
Polls are now closed across the US on a nerve-jangling night that will set the nation's course for the next four years and cast judgment on the most tumultuous presidency of the modern age. Results are flowing in from battlegrounds and it's too early to make a projection in many key states.
CNN projects Biden will win Hawaii, Rhode Island, Minnesota, Virginia, California, Oregon, Washington, Illinois, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Colorado, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Vermont, Delaware, Washington, DC, Maryland, Massachusetts and one of Nebraska's five electoral votes. Nebraska awards two electoral votes to its statewide winner and divides three others over its three congressional districts.
CNN projects Trump will also win in Montana, Texas, Iowa, Idaho, Ohio, Mississippi, Wyoming, Missouri, Kansas, Utah, Louisiana, Alabama, South Carolina, North Dakota, South Dakota, Arkansas, Indiana, Oklahoma, Kentucky, West Virginia and Tennessee and four of Nebraska's five electoral votes.
Trump's chilling threat to vote counting
Trump attempted to claim victory in the presidential race and called for a halt to legitimate vote counting that is underway around the country in a chilling threat to American democracy
In fact, the election is far from over with millions of votes outstanding in key states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan -- ballots that were cast before Election Day that have yet to be counted. Yet Trump sought to mislead his loyal supporters by conflating the legitimate counting of ballots with voting as he falsely claimed Democrats were trying to "steal the election."
Facing the real possibility that he could lose, Trump -- as expected -- appeared to be seizing the opportunity to confuse his supporters about the democratic process and suggest that there was something nefarious about the fact that many states are still counting votes. The lengthy vote count, which could extend for several days, was widely anticipated because so many Americans cast vote-by-mail ballots to protect themselves from exposure to the coronavirus in the middle of a pandemic.
While making the ludicrous suggestion that the counting of legally cast votes should stop as he watched his margins narrow in several key swing states, Trump made a wild threat that his lawyers would take their case to the Supreme Court even though it remains unclear what their legal rationale would be.
Even within Trump's short speech there was a glaring inconsistency in his position as he advocated for votes to continue to be counted in Arizona, a state that he believes is more favorable to him, while expressing anger that one network had called it early. CNN has not projected a winner in Arizona.
He celebrated his victories in Florida and Ohio, and claimed to win multiple states that CNN has yet to project. His call for an end to the counting was the kind of dangerous election night speech that political observers long feared Trump would make, in which he falsely claimed, "This is a major fraud on our nation."
Biden campaign manager Jen O'Malley Dillon ripped Trump's speech as "a naked effort to take away the democratic rights of American citizens."
"The President's statement tonight about trying to shut down the counting of duly cast ballots was outrageous, unprecedented, and incorrect," she said, adding, "It was unprecedented because never before in our history has a president of the United States sought to strip Americans of their voice in a national election. Having encouraged Republican efforts in multiple states to prevent the legal counting of these ballots before Election Day, now Donald Trump is saying these ballots can't be counted after Election Day either."
Biden was the first candidate to speak to supporters early Wednesday morning, after a night of results didn't deliver a quick winner, saying that "we believe we're on track to win this election."
The former vice president said it was not up to him or Trump to decide the winner of the election and that the votes would be counted.
"Keep the faith guys, we're going to win this," Biden said.
Trump wins two must-have states
Wins for Trump in the Sunshine State and Ohio are crucial to keep open his pathway to win a second term.
Florida Democrats were concerned early in the night about populous southern Miami-Dade County where Biden appeared to be underperforming Clinton's mark in 2016.
The early Biden deficit in Miami-Dade could be a sign of what was apparent in pre-election polls that suggested the President had been making incursions into traditional Democratic support with Black and Latino men. Former President Barack Obama made two trips to Miami-Dade in the closing days of the race to drive up turnout.
Miami-Dade, which Biden is still likely to win, has large concentrations of voters of Cuban and Venezuelan descent who tend to be more conservative than other Latino groups and were targeted by the President with claims that Democrats were akin to socialists.
The President also opened up a solid lead in Ohio after early returns showed Biden in the lead. The Buckeye State was another battleground that Trump's campaign thought he must win in order to earn another four years in Washington. Biden spent time in the state on Monday and was another place that the Democrat had hoped to flip.
Biden does not need to win Florida and Ohio in order to win the presidency, but his campaign had hoped to flip those states after several encouraging polls in the final weeks of the campaign.
Biden performs well in Arizona
Biden appears to have made significant gains in Arizona where demographic changes have accelerated the state's shift from traditional Republican territory to a potential Democratic pick up. The President's unpopularity and the rapid growth of the state -- from its rising Latino population to the influx of retirees from the Midwest and other parts of the country -- has made its politics more unpredictable, even in just the four years since 2016, when Trump beat Hillary Clinton in the state 49% to 45.5%.
Clinton built up Democratic margins in populous Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix and its suburbs -- and the majority of the state's voters -- and Biden appears to be continuing that trend Tuesday night, with turnout looking strong in that key county.
Even within the patchwork of early returns, some trends were emerging that pointed to the fact that is a very different race than 2016. In states like Ohio and parts of Florida, Biden appears to be performing better in the suburbs than Clinton did four years ago. At the same time, the President's team seems to have succeeded in turning out their voters as promised -- in some cases making up for what appeared to be an advantage for Democrats in the early vote count in key swing states.
Results may not be known for days
Millions of ballots were still outstanding in those critical three states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, many of them vote-by-mail ballots that were cast early and were expected to favor Democrats.
Even Georgia appeared at a standstill as officials in Fulton County, which includes Atlanta and its populous suburbs said they had stopped counting mail-in ballots around 10:30 p.m. ET and that count would resume at 8 a.m. Wednesday. The Fulton County tabulation was initially delayed by a water leak near the room where ballots were being counted but no ballots were damaged.
Election officials in the so-called "Blue Wall" states of the Midwest tried to prepare the public late Tuesday night for the likelihood that a full count would continue through the night, and could stretch well into Wednesday and later this week -- meaning America may not know the winner of the presidential contest for quite some time.
The slow count in those Midwestern states is creating mounting anxiety for Democrats, who had hoped Biden could post some early wins on the board in swing states to prevent President Trump from declaring a premature victory before even crossing the 270 electoral vote threshold that he needs to win.
For weeks now, Trump has hammered the message that voters should know the results on election night -- even though that is rarely the case in America -- while suggesting that a later count could be a sign of voting irregularities, even though there is no evidence to support that and counting has been much more complex this cycle because so many people cast votes by mail in order to stay safe during the pandemic.
Michigan officials are predicting record turnout, and are hoping that ballots counted overnight could give a sense of at least the unofficial result within 24 hours of poll closures, instead of several days as some were initially expecting, but that appeared uncertain.
Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson told reporters Tuesday night that the state could "potentially see a full result of every tabulation out of Michigan in the next 24 hours," which would be an improvement on the state's original prediction that it would not finish tabulating results until Friday. The state is on track to break turnout records with more than 3 million absentee ballots cast.
"I'm here tonight to ask you all to be patient," Benson said. "No matter how long it takes, no matter what candidates say, we're going to work methodically and meticulously to count every single valid ballot and that, and only that, will determine who wins every race on the ballot in the state of Michigan."
The tipping point state of Pennsylvania may see some of the longest delays, not only because of its very complex ballot with its inner and outer envelopes, but also because election officials were not permitted to start counting the vote-by-mail ballots until Election Day. Late Tuesday night, the Pennsylvania secretary of state urged patience and told result-watchers to expect batches of vote totals to come in in fits and starts throughout the night.
In Wisconsin, some results in the key area of Milwaukee may not be reported until after 5 a.m. on Wednesday, meaning the vote tallies in some of the most critical areas for Biden would not be known until then.
Historic amount of early votes
Across the country, officials were counting the more than 100 million votes that were cast before Election Day, according to a survey of election officials by CNN, Edison Research and Catalist.
The economy is the top issue on the minds of voters Tuesday, according to the preliminary results of a nationwide CNN exit poll. Those results are incomplete because Americans were still voting, but in those early measures about a third said the economy is the most critical issue. About 1 in 5 said racial inequality is the top issue and 1 in 6 said the coronavirus pandemic was most important to their vote. However, a majority said the nation should prioritize containing Covid-19 over rebuilding the economy.
Republicans have made a huge effort to invalidate ballots and limit voter turnout through legal challenges and questionable monitoring tactics that bordered on voter intimidation in some states. Trump spent his final days trying to cast aspersions on vote counting, insisting that a winner should be declared on Tuesday night, even though America has long counted ballots well into the days and weeks after Election Day.
With Biden leading in many national and battleground state polls, the President's team is counting on explosive Election Day turnout within the GOP and relying on their intensive, data-driven ground game to turn out quiet Trump voters, who they say have not been reflected in the polls.
This is a breaking story and will be updated.
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