N.C. soap opera: Republican calls for new election, as his own son testifies against him

Republican candidate Mark Harris looks worse and worse as last unsettled House race goes Southern gothic

By Igor Derysh

Published February 21, 2019 4:25PM (EST)

Mark Harris (AP/Chuck Burton)
Mark Harris (AP/Chuck Burton)

Republican congressional candidate Mark Harris, who led the vote count in North Carolina's 9th district after the November election -- but has not been seated in Congress amid accusations of widespread fraud -- told the state board of elections on Thursday that it should call a new election. 

This comes as the accusations against Harris grow darker and even flavored with soap opera. His own son -- John Harris, who happens to be an assistant federal prosecutor -- testified against him this week at a hearing on the blatant ballot fraud carried out in Harris’ 2018 race. John Harris said his father had ignored his warnings about political operative Leslie McCrae Dowless’ history of fraud and hired him anyway.

Harris led Democrat Dan McCready by about 900 votes after election night but the state’s board of elections has refused to certify the results amid mounting evidence of fraud. At a hearing this week, workers for Dowless, who was paid tens of thousands by Harris’ campaign, testified that they illegally collected and filled out absentee ballots.

Harris had claimed he was unaware that Dowless had previously been accused of a similar fraud. His son directly refuted that claim in his testimony on Wednesday.

John Harris, who is an assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina, testified that he expressed “concerns” to his father a day after Mark Harris met Dowless in 2017, The Raleigh News & Observer reported.

John Harris said he had seen the dubious absentee voter data from a 2016 congressional race that made him believe Dowless was a “shady character.” In the 2016 Republican primary, Dowless’ candidate, Todd Johnson, received 98 percent of the absentee ballot vote in one rural county in a three-way race.

"This is not legal advice," John Harris wrote in one email to his dad that was obtained by investigators. "The key thing that I am fairly certain they do that is illegal is that they collect the completed absentee ballots and mail them at once. The way they pop up in batches at the board of elections makes me believe that."

John Harris also testified that he does not believe his parents were aware of what Dowless was doing. “I think they were lied to, and they believed the person who lied to them,” he said.

"I love my dad and I love my mom. OK?" he added as his father broke down in tears in the courtroom. "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."

Mark Harris testified Thursday that he did not believe Dowless was running an illegal operation.

"I'll never forget. He said it again and again. He said: ‘We do not take the ballot. I don’t care if it’s a 95-year-old woman in a wheelchair, we do not take the ballots,’" Harris said, according to WSOC.

“I’m convinced that it all comes down to relationships, and I said it's just the relationships that he has with the people in that community that will fill out an absentee ballot request form and then ultimately mail that absentee ballot in," he added.

But an email that Harris’ lawyers did not hand over to investigators until Thursday shows that the candidate was quite certain Dowless was the man who could deliver him an election win, Roll Call reported.

Harris referred to Dowless in a March 2017 email to Bladen County Judge Marion Warren as “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.”

The hearing, which was expected to last a couple of days, is expected to stretch into next week. After the hearing concludes, the elections board will vote on what to do next. The board could still certify Harris as the winner, although that seems unlikely, It could also call a new election, as seems entirely probable.

Attorney Marc Elias, who is representing the McCready campaign, called on the board to do exactly that.

“Today we learned that the leader of this election fraud scheme was hired directly by GOP candidate Harris over the explicit warning of his attorney son,” he wrote on Twitter. “We cannot let this stand. The voters deserve better.”

Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's Deputy News and Politics Editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

Tips/Email: iderysh@salon.com Twitter: @IgorDerysh

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