RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — When the Republican narrowly leading the country’s last undecided congressional election asks North Carolina elections officials to overlook ballot manipulation in a rural county and declare him the winner, he’ll have to overcome testimony from a compelling witness — his son.
GOP congressional candidate Mark Harris is expected to tell a special investigative hearing of the state elections board on Thursday that it should certify his November victory and send him to Washington. Democrat Dan McCready’s lawyers contend the race was tainted and a new election should be ordered.
McCready trailed Harris by 905 votes out of about 280,000 cast in November’s election, but then allegations surfaced that in the eastern corner of the 9th congressional district Bladen County political operative Leslie McCrae Dowless was manipulating mail-in ballots.
North Carolina’s elections director said this week that Dowless conducted an illegal and well-funded ballot-harvesting operation during the 2018 election cycle while working for Harris. Dowless’ workers in rural Bladen County testified that they were directed to forge signatures, collect blank or incomplete ballots voters handed over, and even fill in votes for local candidates who hadn’t earned them.
Harris’ had previously said he never suspected his campaign could have deployed a vote-getting specialist who collected ballots by the bundle and turned them in when he wanted. But on Wednesday, the candidate’s son, John Harris, said he’d warned his father about Dowless’ operation since mid-2016.
John Harris said his warnings were overridden because local Republican figures recommended Dowless to Mark Harris, who was gearing up for a primary rematch against incumbent GOP U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger. Mark Harris and his wife met Dowless in April 2017, when the operative insisted his method for maximizing mail-in vote results was legal and grounded in local relationships, John Harris said Wednesday.
Local politicians knew and had used Dowless since at least 2010, and the community had even voted him to a local soil and water conservation board, Harris’ lawyer, David Freedman, said. Harris largely went along with those local recommendations, the attorney said.
“I think he’s much too trusting,” Freedman said.
Mark Harris previously told The Associated Press he sought out and hired Dowless because he delivered votes, including for a Republican rival in the 2016 GOP primary. Harris said he discussed with an attorney after that primary whether to challenge Dowless’ incredible results for a GOP rival with mail-in ballots in Bladen County. Dowless’ methods in the 2016 general election were referred to federal prosecutors, who took no action.
Since October, John Harris has worked as a federal prosecutor in the civil division of the same U.S. Justice Department office in Raleigh. He said he was testifying voluntarily in his capacity as a private citizen and not as a Justice Department employee.
His son’s testimony, paired with TV and other interviews Mark Harris gave denying any prior knowledge of a contractor who made illegal vote-getting his business, undercut his claims of truthfulness, McCready attorney Marc Elias said Wednesday.
“Now we know that he was warned by his son in quite stark terms and over both phone and in emails,” he said. “We know that what Dr. Harris has been telling us, which is that no one warned him, is patently untrue.”
Harris decided to hire Dowless over his son’s warnings not because a former judge or other local Republicans recommended him, but because Dowless had gotten votes in the past, Elias said.
“He wanted the same kind of abnormal, fraudulent results that he had been the victim of. And this time, McCrae Dowless was going to be on his team,” Elias said.