TAMPA, Fla. (Reuters) - Florida election officials on Thursday were racing toward a deadline to finish a recount of ballots in close races for the U.S. Senate and governor's seat, and a federal judge expressed frustration with an election system he called "the laughing stock of the world."
U.S. District Judge Mark Walker in Tallahassee, Florida, cleared the way to include ballots from as many as 5,000 people across the state who submitted ballots by mail that were rejected by election officials. A Georgia federal judge issued a similar ruling as that state worked to resolve a close governor's race.
In Florida, the recount of close races from the Nov. 6 elections and attendant legal disputes over the validity of votes have stirred memories of the 2000 U.S. presidential election, when the U.S. Supreme Court stopped an ongoing recount in the state and sent George W. Bush to the White House.
Walker grew testy during a series of Thursday hearings about lawsuits over the recounts, voicing frustration about how to handle uneven progress in different counties and also questioning the Florida legislature's response to historic election problems.
"We have been the laughing stock of the world election after election," Walker said. "But we've still chosen not to fix this."
He rejected a request by incumbent U.S. Senator Bill Nelson and the Democratic Party to extend Thursday's 3 p.m. ET (2000 GMT) deadline to report results of the first-round electronic recount.
Separately, a federal judge in Georgia ordered state election officials to count some previously rejected ballots in that state's governor's race, where ballots are still being tallied but Republican former Secretary of State Brian Kemp has declared victory over Democrat Stacey Abrams.
Initial counts after the elections showed Florida's outgoing governor, Republican Rick Scott, leading in his bid to unseat Nelson. Republican Ron DeSantis led Democrat Andrew Gillum in the governor's race.
In both races the margins of victory were below the 0.5 percentage point threshold at which state law requires a recount of ballots. If the margin is below 0.25 percent by the end of the electronic recount, a second round of recounting by hand will follow.
Overall control of the U.S. Senate is not at stake in the Florida race. President Donald Trump's fellow Republicans extended their majority in the chamber while Democrats took a majority in the House of Representatives. But both the Senate and governor's races are being closely scrutinized as Florida is traditionally a key swing state in presidential elections.
The Democrats' majority in the new House expanded by another seat on Thursday when the Maine Secretary of State's office declared Jared Golden the winner of a race against incumbent Republican Representative Bruce Poliquin. That race represented an early test of a new state ranked-choice voting system, designed to prevent candidates in races with three or more contenders from winning office without majority support.
In Florida, Nelson's lead attorney in the case, Marc Elias, praised the judge's ruling on Thursday.
Republicans, who have also filed lawsuits challenging the process, decried the ruling, and the Scott campaign filed an appeal.
"Another day, another chance for Marc Elias to rack up massive legal fees regardless of the blatant hypocrisy ... or the damage this will do to Bill Nelson's legacy," Scott spokeswoman Lauren Schenone said in an emailed statement.
It was not clear that additional ballots allowed in either Florida or Georgia would tip the races in question.
Current official tallies from Florida show Scott leading Nelson by 50.07 percent of the vote to 49.92, with DeSantis on 49.59 percent to Gillum's 49.18 percent.
Georgia's results show Kemp leading Abrams 50.23 percent to 48.83 percent. The election was a three-way race that included a Libertarian candidate who drew close to 1 percent of the vote, and if Kemp's total ended up dipping below 50 percent, he and Abrams would proceed to a runoff next month.
Just three of 15 consequential recounts of statewide U.S. elections from 2000 through 2015 resulted in a change of winner, according to a 2016 analysis by FairVote. Those recounts resulted in an average margin swing of just 0.019 percent - less than the margins in any of the three races currently being recounted, according to the nonpartisan group.
This year's campaigns went down as the most expensive midterm elections in U.S. history, with some $5.25 billion spent on advertising, up 78 percent from the last midterm elections in 2014, according to a Kantar Media analysis released on Thursday. Spending was 20 percent higher than the 2016 presidential election.
(Reporting by Letitia SteinWriting by Scott Malone; Editing by Frances Kerry and Cynthia Osterman)