Following four days of emotional and shocking testimony, the N.C. State Board of Elections unanimously voted on Feb. 21 for a new election in NC’s 9th Congressional District after Republican candidate Mark Harris abruptly called for a new election and then left the building.
The prior three days included testimony from campaign workers and documents introduced by the state that revealed evidence of widespread electoral misconduct led by McCrae Dowless, a political operative who worked for the Harris campaign.
The central issue in the investigation was illegal ballot harvesting and potential tampering or suppression on the part of Dowless, who didn't testify in the hearings. In North Carolina, it's a felony to collect absentee ballots from someone who is not an immediate family member.
Lisa Britt, Dowless’ stepdaughter who worked on the campaign, said she and other operatives were directed and paid by Dowless to collect absentee ballots and, in some cases, fill out incomplete ballots. She also testified that she and others witnessed absentee ballots that they were not present for when filled out.
Before the hearing, Britt said Dowless gave her and others on the campaign a slip of paper with instructions on what to say under testimony.
Britt felt Harris wasn't aware of Dowless' operation.
“I think Mr. Harris was completely clueless as to what was going on," Britt said.
Andy Jackson, an elections policy fellow at the conservative Civitas Institute, called for a change that would prevent this kind of misconduct from happening in the first place.
“We in North Carolina are going to have to take a serious look at reforming our absentee ballot process, so that it’s not quite as easy for these kind of political operatives to get their hands on people’s ballots,” Jackson said.
Andy Yates, founder of a conservative political consulting group Red Dome, worked extensively with the Harris campaign. Although hired by Harris, Dowless was paid by the campaign through Red Dome. Yates said he was completely unaware of Dowless' practices and did not know he had prior felony convictions.
The bombshell came when the state called Harris’ son, John Harris.
John Harris, now an assistant U.S. attorney, said he expressed concern multiple times to his parents and Yates as early as 2016 about Dowless personally and his ability to turn out so many absentee ballots during the 2016 Republican primary.
The Harris campaign did not turn over the emails exchanged until very shortly before his son took the stand.
Mark did not know his son was testifying until Tuesday night, and his father was in tears as he watched his son finish his testimony. John cut off contact with his father in early December to avoid legal jeopardy. He said he did not think his father knowingly broke the law or tried to cover it up.
“I think they were lied to and they believe the person who lied to them,” John said.
Taking the stand the day after his son, Mark said he did not know what Dowless was up to and that he didn't see his son’s emails as a clear warning about Dowless.
After being pressed over his knowledge of Dowless’ operation and his son’s emails, Mark abruptly called for a new election. He also revealed he suffered two strokes in recent months and was having memory problems, then left the building.
Following the shocking reversal by Harris, the NCSBE unanimously voted to hold a new election.
Mitch Kokai, a senior political analyst at the conservative-leaning John Locke Foundation, said he does not expect Harris to run in the new special election but was unsure who would replace him.
Kokai said he expects McCready to be the sole Democratic candidate in the new election.
“McCready ran so well in the 2018 election, and I’m guessing that if not formally, at least informally, Democratic power brokers will try to dissuade any legitimate candidates from staying out of the race so McCready can run,” Kokai said.
Jackson said he doesn't expect McCready to face a Democratic challenger, and the Republicans will need to search for a new candidate.
“The Republicans will have to try to field a candidate, although in the current climate it might be difficult for whomever the Republicans nominate, unless they get a unifying centrist figure,” he said.
N.C. Rep. Graig Meyer, D-District 50, said he felt the evidence was compelling in the case.
“There was overwhelming evidence that election fraud occurred and that Mark Harris was party to the fraud,” he said. “... I hope that we can proceed with having clean and fair elections that make people believe in the democratic process.”
There is no timetable yet for the special election, which must include a primary, according to state law. McCready announced on Friday that he will run in the election.
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