RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The Republican in the last undecided U.S. congressional election ignored repeated warnings from his son against hiring a shady political operator now accused of illegally collecting voter's ballots in a rural North Carolina county and casting the GOP campaign into limbo, the younger man testified Wednesday.
Contradicting congressional candidate Mark Harris' public statements that he never suspected his campaign deployed an operative in rural Bladen County who collected ballots by the bundle and turned them in when he wanted, John Harris testified at a special state elections board hearing that he'd warned his father about Leslie McCrae Dowless' operation repeatedly since mid-2016.
John Harris said his warnings were overridden because local Republicans recommended Dowless to Mark Harris, who was gearing up for a primary rematch against incumbent U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger. His parents met with Dowless in April 2017, when the operative insisted his method for maximizing mail-in vote results was legal and grounded in local relationships.
"I think they were lied to and they believed the person who lied to them," John Harris said of his parents. "I will also say, they were weighing what I had provided in terms of analysis against other people that they respected who endorsed Mr. Dowless' behavior. Do I agree with their ultimate assessment? No. I thought what he was doing was illegal. And I was right."
North Carolina's elections director said Monday that Dowless conducted an illegal and well-funded ballot-harvesting operation while working for Mark Harris during the 2018 election cycle. Dowless' workers in Bladen County testified at the special state elections board hearing that they were directed to forge signatures, collect blank or incomplete ballots voters handed over, and even fill in votes for local candidates who hadn't earned them.
Some Bladen County residents also raised their suspicions in sworn affidavits that Dowless also may have discarded the ballots of Democrat Dan McCready's supporters. He trailed Harris by 905 votes out of about 280,000 cast in November's election, but the race wasn't certified after allegations against Dowless surfaced. The hearing has produced no testimony showing ballots were discarded.
Dowless declined to testify this week after the elections board refused to grant him immunity from prosecution based on what he might say. Dowless has felony convictions for insurance fraud and perjury, but Harris and his chief campaign consultant said those charges were missed in a brief background check.
John Harris said he did not have a significant role in his father's campaign and assumed campaign staffers and consultants had a duty to keep an eye on Dowless' performance.
Mark Harris previously told The Associated Press he sought out and hired Dowless because he delivered votes, including for a Republican rival in the 2016 GOP primary. Harris said he discussed with an attorney after that primary whether to challenge Dowless' incredible results for a GOP rival with mail-in ballots in Bladen County. Dowless' methods in the 2016 general election were referred to federal prosecutors, who took no action.
Since October, John Harris has worked in the civil division of the same U.S. Justice Department office in Raleigh. He said he was testifying voluntarily in his capacity as a private citizen and not as a Justice Department employee. Mark Harris appeared to tear up during his son's testimony.
John Harris testified that he initially warned his parents about Dowless after reviewing voting data immediately after his father's 2016 primary loss. Mark Harris had lost a Republican primary that June in which GOP rival Todd Johnson, who used Dowless in that campaign, scored 98 percent of the mail-in ballots cast in Bladen County.
In November 2016, John Harris forwarded a Republican fundraising email amid a vote-counting fight in the close North Carolina governor's race. The email claimed that a Democratic Party voting fraud scheme in Bladen County had been uncovered, based on a complaint by Dowless of misdeeds by a local black empowerment organization.
Mark Harris reacted to the email with a reply to his son: "Amen! But interestingly enough, the guy who made the claim, Dowess (sic), is the same guy that Johnson paid to run the "absentee ballot program" for him! Guess he didn't like the Dems cutting into his business!"
Mark Harris is expected to testify Thursday. The elections board is expected to either declare him the winner in the 9th congressional district or order a new election after the multi-day hearing.
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