NC Elections Board Votes For New Election In Contested 9th District

Feb 21, 2019

John Harris, testifying at the state elections board's hearing into voting irregularities in North Carolina's 9th Congressional District race. Harris's father, Mark, is the Republican candidate who hired the campaign operative accused of ballot tampering in the disputed contest.
Credit Rusty Jacobs, WUNC

Updated at 4:05 p.m.

The North Carolina State Board of Elections has voted unanimously in favor of a new election for the contested 9th Congressional District.

Updated at 3:35 p.m.

Republican candidate Mark Harris has called for a new election in North Carolina's 9th Congressional District in the midst of the hearings into voter irregularities.

Harris told the North Carolina State Board of Elections it became clear to him in the past few days that medical issues he experienced in January have affected his ability to testify. He says it is clear a new election in the 9th Congressional District is justified.

"I believe a new election should be called," said Harris. "It's become clear to me that the public's confidence in the 9th District seat general election has been undermined to an extent that a new election is warranted."

Mark Harris testified for several hours on Thursday before the board went into a closed session. When they returned, Harris read a statement that called for the new election, and apologized for his lapses in memory. He then left the hearing.

When asked if Harris would run in a new 9th District election, the Executive Director of the North Carolina Republican Party Dallas Woodhouse said, “there’s no way that has been contemplated.”

Updated at 8:30 a.m.

Mark Harris hired a "shady" campaign operative despite repeated warnings, according to his son, John, who testified Wednesday at the state elections board hearing on voting irregularities in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District.

Mark Harris and his legal team maintain the candidate knew nothing about the alleged criminal tactics used by Bladen County political operative McCrae Dowless, who has proven particularly skilled at garnering absentee-by-mail votes for his clients.

Mark Harris saw Dowless's handy work up close in 2016. In the GOP primary that year, incumbent Robert Pittenger edged Mark Harris in the overall race. But third-place finisher, now state senator, Todd Johnson got hundreds of Bladen County absentee-by-mail votes while Harris and Pittenger got a total of five between them. Dowless worked on the Johnson campaign.

But John Harris testified that after examining publicly available data from the elections board, he thought the 2016 numbers looked fishy, particularly the absentee ballot numbers in Bladen County. At first, he said, he thought perhaps there had been a counting error but then noticed batches of absentee ballots had arrived at the county elections board on the same date.

"At that point, I began to be concerned that someone was actively down there collecting the ballots," he said. "They go collect the ballots, they walk down to the post office or the P.O. box, take a big batch, put them in and then they all pop up on the same date."

So in 2017, when his father considered hiring Dowless for a run in the upcoming midterm elections, John Harris reminded him of those concerns.

"Namely my belief that McCrae had engaged in collecting ballots in 2016," he said.

John Harris is 29, a father himself, and an assistant U.S. attorney for North Carolina's Eastern District. He said he followed up his initial warning about Dowless with an email to his parents that included the statute classifying the collection of absentee ballots as a felony.

John Harris's testimony all but shows his father knew what Dowless was up to, according to attorney Marc Elias, whose client, Democrat Dan McCready, trails Mark Harris by 905 votes in the disputed, uncertified 9th Disrict race.

"He wanted the results," Elias said of Mark Harris. "He wanted the same kind of abnormal results that he had been the victim of."

Mark Harris's attorney, David Freedman, said his client was duped by Dowless.

"He trusts people," Freedman told reporters Wednesday, after the day's testimony. "He sees the best in people and he made a terrible judgment in this case."

John Harris also insisted Dowless lied to his father.

Mark Harris will have his own say when the GOP candidate, and former pastor, takes the stand on Thursday.

Harris fought back tears during some of his son's testimony on Wednesday. The candidate did not know his son would be testifying. John Harris said he had not disclosed to his parents that he was subpoenaed by the elections board to testify and that he had cut off communications regarding the congressional race out of legal considerations.

After answering questions, John Harris made a closing statement to the elections board and the audience attending Wednesday's hearing.

"I love my dad and I love my mom, OK," the younger Harris said. "I certainly have no vendetta against them, no family scores to settle, OK. I think that they made mistakes in this process and they certainly did things differently than I would have done them."

But John Harris said the takeaway from this whole ordeal for him is that people of all political persuasions must find a way to transcend partisanship and do better.