The disappearance has fuelled concern over Florida’s ability to avert a repeat of the chaos of 2000, when legal wrangling delayed the outcome of the poll for five weeks amid voting recounts, leaving George W Bush with a 537-vote lead that won him the state and the White House.

Officials in the hotly contested Broward County said nearly 60,000 absentee ballots mailed on October 7 and 8 had not reached voters’ homes.

US Postal Service investigators who have been hunting for the missing ballots say thousands have since turned up in the mail, but many others are still unaccounted for.

“We are going to send out new ballots. We’re trying to figure out how many and how best to get them to the voters,” said Gisela Salas, Broward’s deputy supervisor of elections.

The incident comes amid a string of lawsuits, claims of voting irregularities and complaints about long early voting lines.

Broward election officials assured voters they could still cast ballots, even if their requested absentee ballots did not show up, by going to early polling stations which are open in the days before Tuesday’s election.

The issue of the missing ballots is all the more crucial as US President Bush and John Kerry are in a deadlock in the south-eastern state that could once again be pivotal in determining who the next US president will be.

Broward County’s supervisor of elections, Brenda Snipes, said her office had sent out 127,320 absentee ballots earlier this month, and that at least 50,800 people received them and voted, adding that others will now receive new ballots.

“This isn’t a blame game. What we’re concentrating on is getting the ballots to the voters,” she said as an investigation found no evidence of foul play.