When 9th congressional candidate Mark Harris took the stand Thursday and called for a new election in light of evidence his political operative orchestrated a fraudulent absentee ballot scheme, a collective gasp resonated through the room.
It was the fourth day of an evidentiary hearing conducted by the State Board of Elections to decide whether it would certify the last undecided congressional race in the nation or order a new election altogether — which it ultimately did.
Every day of testimony turned out to be more dramatic than the next, and what would be the unexpected last day of the hearing Thursday was no exception.
“Through the testimony I’ve listened to in the past three days, I believe a new election should be called,” Harris said from the stand, immediately sending the entire room into a state of shock. “It’s become clear to me that the public’s confidence in the 9th district’s seat general election has been undermined to an extent that a new election is warranted.”
It didn’t take long for the five-member State Board to agree, unanimously across party lines.
In his motion to order a new election, State Board Chair Bob Cordle said the “corruption” was clear in the “absolute mess with the absentee ballots” in Bladen County.
“It was certainly a tainted election,” he said. “I believe the people of North Carolina deserve a fair election and deserve to have their votes counted properly.”
Harris’ abrupt change of heart came a day after his son, John Harris, testified that his father ignored multiple warnings from him in phone calls and emails about political operative McCrae Dowless’ prior illegal tactics before hiring him.
The 29-year-old assistant U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina had previously provided the State Board with emails showing exchanges between him and his parents in which he told them he was fairly certain Dowless was collecting absentee ballots from voters, a felony in the state.
“Good test is if you’re comfortable with the full process he uses being broadcast on the news,” John Harris wrote in an email to his parents in spring 2017.
‘He was overreacting’
The elder Harris testified Thursday that he never took his son’s warnings seriously. He hired Dowless — who refused to testify at the hearing this week — anyway to run his absentee ballot program in Bladen, Robeson and Cumberland counties.
“I did not consider John’s to be a warning that this was a problem, and could be a real serious problem, because I just believed he was overreacting in his comments,” Mark Harris testified.
State Board member Jeff Carmon III was skeptical about his explanation.
“It was painfully clear to me that your son was saying, ‘Daddy don’t mess with this guy,’” he told Harris. “He didn’t just state stay away from this guy, he said if this goes left instead of right, are you able to handle this if it comes out in the media. That is beyond a red flag. To me his statement would have required you to do more due diligence than just thinking about it, praying about it and relying on other officials, because that is your son.”
Harris said his son was 27-years-old at the time, and while he was sharp, he was still his son.
“Obviously I read these emails today in a very different intellectual light than what I read them,” he told Carmon. “I’m his dad, and I know he’s a little judgmental and has a little taste of arrogance and some other things, and I’m very proud of him — I love him with all my heart — but this was father and son, and weighing out, and in all truthfulness, today, he was right.”
John Harris also testified that he warned Andy Yates, of Red Dome Group about Dowless, and nothing was done.
Yates, who spent nearly eight hours testifying Tuesday and Wednesday, said red flags about Dowless’ illegal practices were never raised for him. He also said he never kept any records of anything, just took McCrae Dowless’ word for everything.
Harris hired Dowless and then Red Dome to be his top political consultant. Red Dome paid Dowless more than $130,000 during the course of the campaign.
‘A game of three-card Monte’
John Harris’ testimony was a surprise to Harris and his team, and it turned out the campaign lawyer never turned over the emails that John Harris had until about 15 minutes before he got on the stand.
One of the bigger points of contention Thursday morning was why the Harris campaign waited to produce the documents. It also turned out the campaign handed in more correspondence Harris had with other people about Dowless later that night, a mere hours before he would take the stand.
Josh Lawson, State Board counsel, sent the Harris campaign a letter scolding them about the late production of documents.
“The timing of your disclosure raises significant and material concerns regarding the Committee’s compliance and candor prior to, and now during, the hearing,” he wrote.
An attorney representing Dan McCready, the Democratic candidate who lost the congressional race to Republican Harris by 905 votes, was furious and pointed out this wasn’t the first time the campaign has had issues complying with their subpoena.
“I feel like, frankly, there is a game of three-card Monte going on here with each one saying not us, not us, not us,” said Marc Elias. “All I know is we are in the third day of a one-day hearing and records are still being produced that are explosively important to the facts of the matter here.”
Harris campaign attorney John Branch apologized to the State Board for the late production of documents, and said he had a narrow interpretation of the subpoena they were under.
Elias insinuated instead that the Harris campaign misclassified certain employees as contractors to avoid complying with the subpoena and said it wasn’t the first time they were involved in questionable practices.
‘I don’t recall’
The State Board continued on with Harris’ testimony without deciding at the time whether to take a negative inference from the lack of compliance, a request Elias made.
Those documents would catch Harris off guard later and cause him to to misspeak while under oath.
A State Board attorney asked if he knew the emails between him and his son would be admitted as evidence, and he said that yes, he understood that.
He was then asked at least four different times by two separate attorneys about whether he’d had any conversations with anyone about believing the emails would not be part of the evidence this week.
“I don’t recall specifically saying that, I’m not denying that I could have said that,” he answered once.
When Elias asked him the question twice, noting the last time that he wanted to give Harris one more chance to answer it, he still denied such communication.
“I cannot imagine and cannot remember with all the information over the last four days that I would have made a statement that the emails John and I had would not be part of this,” Harris responded.
His attorney hastily stood up after the last answer and requested a recess. After a lunch break and a quick closed session with the State Board, Harris took the stand again and said he had something he wanted to say.
He said he was incorrect in his recollection and that he had actually talked to his younger son, Matthew, about the fact that he did not think John Harris’ emails would be brought to the hearing.
“On Jan. 18, I went to the hospital,” he added. “After battling what we thought was bronchitis, I developed a severe infection that actually caused me to become septic and in the process of that illness, I experienced two strokes from which I am still recovering. Though I thought I was ready to undergo the rigors of this hearing, and am getting stronger, I clearly am not, and I struggled this morning to both recall and [with] confusion. Neither I nor any of my campaign were aware of or condoned the improper activities that have been testified to in this hearing.”
Harris was then excused from the stand and left the room quickly without answering questions from reporters outside.
‘Almost like a crime family down there’
There is a criminal investigation ongoing parallel to the State Board’s investigation. As part of its months-long efforts, State Board investigators conducted 142 voter interviews, at least 30 subject and witness interviews and issued subpoenas of documents and records, including financial statements and phone records.
In addition to ordering a new 9th congressional district race, the State Board ordered new elections for Bladen County Commissioner District 3 and Bladen County Soil and Water Conservation District Supervisor. It deferred a decision on a Robeson County District Court seat until legal questions are resolved.
The State Board will set dates for new 9th congressional district primary (and second primary, if necessary) and general elections at a subsequent meeting.
Before the Board’s vote, Board Member David C. Black said the staff’s investigation should serve as a lesson that the State Board will do its best to ensure elections are run properly and fairly.
“As we stated before, this did not help the reputation of North Carolina, but we’ve turned the corner now,” Black said.
After the hearing, Cordle said watching the testimony unfold was “kind of scary if you’re anybody who likes elections.”
“What they were doing down in Bladen County is wrong; it was illegal and it was almost a crime family down there,” he said.
He found the most shocking piece of evidence to be from Lisa Britt, Dowless’ former stepdaughter who he recruited to help with the scheme.
She testified Monday that Dowless typed up a statement for her to communicate to the State Board instead of testifying.
“I can tell you that I haven’t done anything wrong in the election, and McCrae Dowless has never told me to do anything wrong, and to my knowledge, he has never done anything wrong, but I am taking the 5th Amendment because I don’t have an attorney and I feel like you will try to trip me up,” the typed-letter stated. “I am taking the 5th.”
Cordle criticized the apparent effort withhold evidence.
“We don’t need that in North Carolina, and we’ll turn all of that over to the District Attorney and the U.S. Attorney,” he added.
What’s next for candidates
The big question now on everyone’s minds is whether Mark Harris will run again in the new election. His attorney, David Freedman, said the premature answer is “yes.”
“The lessons are that you need to hire good people and you need to keep proper oversight and you need to follow up, and it’s hard,” he told reporters after Thursday’s hearing. “A lot of times you’re running an election, it’s a nine-county district, you have to rely on some people along the way.”
He said the hearing has been taking a toll on Harris, who remains on intravenous antibiotics since his sickness.
Freedman would not say why he stopped proceedings after his client misspoke under oath because of attorney-client privilege. As to whether his client could be criminally charged — he said he hopes that would not be the case.
“I would hope this would be the end of that,” he said. “I would hope this would be the end of the saga for Dr. Harris in Bladen County.”
It wasn’t clear exactly when Harris decided to end his effort to stave off a new election, but Freedman said he was compelled by Britt’s testimony.
“I found Ms. Britt to be a very, very compelling witness, as did Dr. Harris,” he said. “Dr. Harris believes in people, and we’ve been having lots of debates about McCrae Dowless, and I think it took Lisa Britt’s testimony to give a feel for who he really is to Dr. Harris.”
Britt wasn’t the only impactful testimony delivered on Monday. There was a clear picture of residents from poor, rural urban without any real interest in politics or knowledge about the election process who were recruited by Dowless to commit felonies.
None of the witnesses who worked for Dowless had attorneys, and all testified voluntarily.
Dowless was previously described to Harris as a “good ole Bladen County boy who ate, slept and drank politics.”
Elias was not as sympathetic toward Harris or his sudden reversal on whether to call for a new election.
“I think that Mark Harris was facing a long cross examination in which I was prepared to show the statements he had given to the media were untrue and that potentially testimony he had previously given was not true,” he said. “Anytime an attorney stands up in the middle of testimony and says we need to immediately recess, and then you see a couple hours go by, and then you see the witness come back on and say they may have been mistaken and no longer wish to testify voluntarily, I think that that’s a pretty good indication of where Dr. Harris understood things were going to go from there.”
His client, McCready, has already announced he will run for election again in the new race.
“From the moment the first vote was stolen in North Carolina, from the moment the first voice was silenced by election fraud, the people have deserved justice,” he said in a statement after the hearing. “Today was a great step forward for democracy in North Carolina.”
This week’s events led participants and observers to draw many different conclusions, but there seemed to be widespread agreement that there is a need to improve the management and oversight of elections in North Carolina.
“I thank the Board for unanimously doing the right thing,” Gov. Roy Cooper said in a statement. “People must have confidence that their vote matters and this action sends a strong message that election fraud must not be tolerated.”
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Elias said he thought it came down to how the state Republican Party responded to allegations and evidence of fraud.
“The ultimate takeaway for 9th district voters is that there was a massive election fraud scheme that deprived them of an honest and fair election, and when it came out that that was the case, the Republican Party in this state doubled-down on it,” he said.
State Republican Party Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse has been present for every day of the hearing this week. He has been an avid supporter of Harris’ and worked hard to get everyone to focus on the math involved in questionable votes, not overall taint of the election.
Ultimately though, he and the party said they would support their candidate in his decision to call for a new race.
Cordle said at the end of the day that he didn’t know if Harris knew about Dowless’ activities.
“Whether they want to know, I don’t know,” he said. “But clearly he wanted to get the votes from that guy, and if there was a way to do it legally, he would like to do that. And whether he knew, I don’t think any of us know. He said he didn’t.”
He hoped voters found some solace in the outcome of the hearing.
“I want them to take away the idea that sometimes the law works, and sometimes government works, and sometimes politicians can get together and make a good decision,” Cordle said.