Politics

Email Shows N.C. GOP Candidate Sought Out Operative Accused Of Illegal Ballot Scheme

Mark Harris, Republican candidate in North Carolina's 9th Congressional race, talks during a recess in testimony during the second day of a North Carolina State Board of Elections hearing.
Mark Harris, Republican candidate in North Carolina's 9th Congressional race, talks during a recess in testimony during the second day of a North Carolina State Board of Elections hearing.
Travis Long/News & Observer / Pool

Updated at 11:16 a.m. ET

An email first released to the public on Thursday shows that Republican U.S. House candidate Mark Harris requested to meet the man now at the center of a North Carolina investigation into illegal ballot practices in the 2018 primary and general elections.

The disclosure frustrated investigators, who were only presented with the evidence yesterday despite a subpoena from the North Carolina State Board of Elections for the relevant documents months ago. Harris is testifying before the board on Thursday, during the its fourth day of hearings into the contested election in the state's 9th Congressional District.

The board is trying to determine whether a new election needs to be called in district, where Harris held a 905 vote lead over Democrat Dan McCready in the unofficial ballot tally after the November midterms. But the board declined to certify those results pending its investigation into an absentee ballot scheme that investigators have been unspooling for months that could put that margin into question.

The investigation focuses on a political operative named McCrae Dowless, who was hired by Harris to run get out the vote efforts in Bladen and Robeson counties. Dowless was also investigated in 2016 for his tactics, which a number of witnesses have testified included illegally collecting ballots and filling out some of those ballots.

Mark Harris has said publicly since the investigation began in December that he was unaware of any illegal acts that were done on behalf of his campaign. He reiterated that in his testimony Thursday.

"He said we do not take the ballot," Harris said, describing what Dowless told him. "'I don't care if it's a 95 year old woman in a wheelchair, we do not take the ballots.'"

The email produced by the attorney representing Harris' campaign showed Harris reaching out to Judge Marion Warren about procuring Dowless' help. Dowless worked for another candidate, Todd Johnson, who nearly swept Bladen County's absentee ballot totals in 2016, and Harris refers to that victory in his email.

"On the other issue of your gracious offer to meet me in Bladen County and spend a day connecting me to the "key people" that can help me carry that part of the county in a future US House NC-9 race," Harris wrote to Warren on March 8, 2017. "You know the political and financial connections better than anyone else I would know, including the guy whose absentee ballot project for Johnson could have put me in the US House this term, had I known, and he had been helping us."

But Harris' son, John Harris, testified Wednesday that he warned his father that he thought Dowless was likely engaged in illegal practices as part of his operation.

John Harris says he reviewed the absentee ballot results of the 2016 race and concluded Dowless was using illegal tactics to help Johnson. During Wednesday's hearing, John Harris said he warned his father, Mark Harris about this, but that Mark Harris still hired Dowless.

John Harris said he thought Dowless was dishonest with his father about how he achieved such impressive vote-by-mail totals for the candidates he was working for.

"I had no reason to believe that my father or mother knew Dowless was doing the things that have been described [this week]," John Harris said. "I think they were lied to, and they believed the person who lied to them."

The question of what Harris knew about the operation in the eastern part of the 9th District is important for State Board of Elections as it must decide whether any "improprieties" occured to such an extent as to cast doubt on the election's fairness. In that case, the board has the authority to call a new election in the district.

The board is scheduled to vote on what to do at the end of the hearing, although it's only become more unclear as to when that will be. The hearing was originally scheduled to last one or two days, but Chair Robert Cordle noted Thursday that it likely will stretch beyond this week.

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