Why this is a nightmare scenario
Without a Biden landslide, the sense of division in the US will continue and the country could face a lengthy and ugly legal battle.
The lack of a decisive result has given US President Donald Trump the opportunity to cast doubt on official counts, claiming there has been fraud and that "frankly, we did win this election".
After his Democrat rival Joe Biden fronted the media on Wednesday afternoon (local time) expressing confidence in winning the presidency, Mr Trump tweeted that he would be claiming some key states, even though counting was continuing and they were too close to call.
"We have claimed, for Electoral Vote purposes, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (which won't allow legal observers) the State of Georgia, and the State of North Carolina, each one of which has a BIG Trump lead," Mr Trump tweeted.
He also appeared to claim Michigan, although Twitter cut off the post due to possible misleading information. Major networks including CNN and FoxNews have declared Michigan a Democrat win.
Mr Biden now looks to be on the cusp of victory and only needs to claim one more state to reach the required 270 electoral votes.
However, Mr Trump does not seem to be accepting the outcome and the close vote has unleashed a "nightmare scenario" that many feared.
Ahead of the poll Axios reported Trump's team was preparing to claim victory if he was ahead on election night. Mr Trump denied he would declare victory prematurely but appeared before his supporters on election night to do exactly that.
His team have now filed lawsuits in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Georgia to stop the count and are asking for a recount in Wisconsin.
The uncertainty around the election result sparked protests in Chicago, New York City and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on Wednesday night, with protesters carrying signs demanding "count every vote".
Trump supporters have also stormed a convention centre in Michigan calling for counting to stop.
Protestors from various groups are marching in the Chicago Loop, calling for all votes to be counted and Trump to be removed from office. Route is east on Washington, south on Wabash and eventually looping back to Daley Plaza. pic.twitter.com/mHBFtAg3WY— Ben Pope (@BenPopeCST) November 4, 2020
TRUMP CAMPAIGN FILES LAWSUITS
In Michigan, Mr Trump's legal team are arguing the campaign has not been provided with "meaningful access" to a number of counting locations to watch the opening of ballots and counting process.
"We have filed suit today in the Michigan Court of Claims to halt counting until meaningful access has been granted," campaign manager Bill Stepien said in a statement on Wednesday (local time).
"We also demand to review those ballots which were opened and counted while we did not have meaningful access."
A lawsuit was also filed in Pennsylvania on a similar ground, saying observers were not given a good enough chance to watch the opening and sorting of ballots.
A judge has rejected this complaint but said he would not discourage election officials from allowing observers to get closer if it could be done safely, taking into account coronavirus measures.
In Georgia, the Trump campaign wants to ensure late-arriving ballots are being separated from on-time ballots.
Joe Biden's campaign manager has described Mr Trump's comments on election night as "outrageous".
"The President's statement tonight about trying to shut down the counting of duly cast ballots was outrageous, unprecedented, and incorrect," Jen O'Malley Dillon said in a statement.
"It was outrageous because it is a naked effort to take away the democratic rights of American citizens."
Ms O'Malley Dillon said the counting would not stop.
"It will continue until every duly cast vote is counted. Because that is what our laws - the laws that protect every Americans' constitutional right to vote - require.
"The American people decide the outcome of this election. And the democratic process must and will continue until its conclusion."
AVALANCHE OF LEGAL ACTION
Mr Trump has been laying the ground for unrest over the legitimacy of the result for weeks.
He has cast doubt over mail-in voting, which has surged in popularity due to health advice around the coronavirus pandemic and strongly favours the Democrats.
More than 400 lawsuits have already been lodged since March in coronavirus-related election litigation.
The avalanche of cases come as some states try to encourage mail voting by relaxing rules, while other initiatives try to slow the growth of vote-by-mail.
"I think it's a terrible thing when ballots can be collected after an election," Mr Trump said ahead of Election Day.
"I think it's a terrible thing when states are allowed to tabulate ballots for a long period of time after the election is over."
The close result has put these votes in the spotlight as Mr Trump tries to stop them from being counted.
PAST ELECTION DISPUTES HAVE LASTED WEEKS
In the past disputes have dragged on for weeks and involved legal action and even threats of violence.
It took more than a month for a winner to be declared in the 2000 Bush v Gore election after legal action due to the close vote in Florida.
There were several recounts in several counties before the US Supreme Court stepped in to rule against another recount proposed by Democrat nominee Al Gore, affirming George W. Bush as the president-elect.
According to The New Yorker, a previous 1876 election also unleashed a months-long conflict that devolved into intimidation and threats of violence before a compromise was reached to withdraw troops in the South in exchange for electoral votes going to Rutherford B. Hayes, who became president.
RELATED: Are Trump's voter fraud claims true?
Ahead of the poll, many experts were warning of unrest if the vote was close.
The New York Times Australian Bureau Chief, Damien Cave told ABC's Q&A on Monday night that one possibility in particular was a worry.
"I mean here is the nightmare scenario that I think about as the election drags on for several days in Pennsylvania … the state that is going to define who wins or loses," he said.
"(The scenario is that) there is a handful of poll workers in some places counting the votes and Trump calls out to his people to say, 'Go to those states and make sure the votes are counted', and then you have unrest in the place where the votes are being counted. That is the nightmare scenario I worry about."
This scenario already seems to be playing out, with protesters storming a convention centre in Michigan calling for counting to stop.
NBC reporter Steve Patterson tweeted footage of protesters chanting "stop the count" and trying to push their way into the TCF Hall in Detroit where ballots were being counted. He said it was "tense" as guards blocked the door.
#TCFCENTER: From the inside, the heavy thudding of rhythmic banging against the glass after the boxes were taken down.— Steve Patterson (@PattersonNBC) November 4, 2020
Chanting is echoing in the hall.
Inside: Workers are quietly, diligently counting. @NBCNews pic.twitter.com/IQZd6wKWiF
Other experts also warned of anger if Mr Biden won the popular vote but failed to get enough electoral votes to win the presidency.
"You would see massive demonstrations … if (Joe) Biden wins by 5 per cent," The Australian's Greg Sheridan told Q&A. "I think that's the scenario which is most likely to cause terrible civil unrest in the United States.
"I have a lot of faith in the United States, the great essential Americanness and decency of the place, but if Biden were to win the popular vote by 5 per cent and Trump squeaked away through the Electoral College to get a bare majority in the Electoral College - I don't think that's going to happen but it is very possible - I think you would see massive street demonstrations, I think people would be extremely angry … they would feel that they had been robbed and so forth, and you might get real civil discord on the streets.
"Trump would be unbearable."
There are fears the tense situation in the US could devolve into civil war with Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade issuing a "Do Not Travel" warning for the entire country.
Around the rest of the US, hundreds of National Guard troops have been stationed across the country in preparation for the election.
In Texas, 1000 troops are on the ground across five cities to help police "deter any civil disturbance", National Guard Commander Major-General James Brown said.
Shops and businesses have been boarded up across the country and in cities where there was rioting and looting in the summer.
"It is widely believed there will be civil unrest after the election regardless of who wins," Peter Newsham, Washington police chief, told The Times.
Originally published as Why this is a nightmare scenario