Difficult To Prove Harris As Co-Conspirator In Election Fraud, Say Legal Experts

Mar 4, 2019

McCrae Dowless has been charged with helping to orchestrate an election fraud scheme.
Credit Rusty Jacobs / WUNC

Last week, McCrae Dowless was arrested for illegally possessing absentee ballots. Dowless allegedly paid people to collect mail-in ballots from voters in Bladen and Robeson counties while working as an independent contractor for GOP candidate Mark Harris's 2018 9th Congressional District bid.

And Dowless may have done it before. In the 2016 Republican primary, Dowless helped now state senator Todd Johnson win all but five mail-in votes in Bladen County.

But proving what the candidates knew and when they knew it could be much more difficult.

"For the crime of conspiracy to exist, both participants have to have a meeting of the minds. It's essentially a criminal contract," said UNC Law Professor Richard Myers, a former federal prosecutor.

"Both parties have to know that the criminal activity will take place at some point in the future and agree that it will take place at some point in the future," he explained, speaking generally about conspiracy, not directly addressing the 9th district case.

Mark Harris' son, federal prosecutor John Harris, testified at a state elections board hearing two weeks ago that he warned his father to stay away from Dowless.

But Mark Harris maintains he knew nothing of what Dowless was up to. The same goes for Andy Yates, the political consultant Harris hired to run his 2018 campaign.

And even if Mark Harris should have known Dowless was up to no good that would not necessarily make him a co-conspirator.

"There's a difference between knowing that someone else is engaging in criminal activity and you yourself agreeing that it's going to be a joint enterprise," said Campbell University Law Professor Zachary Bolitho, also a former federal prosecutor and associate deputy attorney general with the U.S. Justice Department.

In a potential conspiracy case, Bolitho said a prosecutor would be on the lookout for information, documentation and other evidence that could prove there was an agreement between two or more suspects.

Such evidence could come from someone who has already been charged, like Dowless.

But, Bolitho said, prosecutors are necessarily careful when dealing with cooperating witnesses.

"Because you know that that witness has something to gain by cooperating," he added.

Mark Harris said he will not run in the new election planned for the 9th district. But political damage may be all that the former pastor suffers from his association with McCrae Dowless.