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by | Feb 21, 2019 | Breaking News, Crime, Current Events, Government, News, Politics | 0 comments

The son of Republican congressional candidate Mark Harris testified Wednesday that he warned his father repeatedly that he believed a political operative now at the center of an election-fraud investigation had previously used illegal tactics to win votes.

John Harris, now an assistant U.S. attorney in Raleigh, said he advised his father in conversations and emails that he believed Leslie McCrae Dowless was “shady” and appeared to have illegally collected absentee ballots in 2016 while working for a different Republican candidate in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District.

The younger Harris, who is 29, said he offered the advice to his father as he considered whether to hire Dowless to run his absentee-ballot program in the 2018 congressional race. He conveyed similar concerns to the campaign’s chief strategist, Andy Yates, he said. Mark Harris hired Dowless despite his son’s concerns, which he said he expressed starting in the spring of 2017.

At one point during his testimony, John Harris’s voice cracked and his father wept.

“I thought what he was doing was illegal, and I was right,” John Harris said about Dowless. He added: “I had no reason to believe that my father actually knew, or my mother or any other associate with the campaign had any knowledge. I think Dowless told them he wasn’t doing any of this, and they believed him.”

Harris’s dramatic testimony undercut claims by both his father, a 52-year-old evangelical minister, and Yates — who completed nearly eight hours of testimony earlier Wednesday — that they had not been aware of any red flags that Dowless might be breaking the law. Investigators also shared an email between father and son in which the younger Harris wrote: “Good test is if you’re comfortable with the full process he uses being broadcast on the news.”

But as Thursday’s hearing began, the board revealed that Harris’s campaign had produced new evidence the night before Harris was to testify: previously undisclosed contacts between the candidate and Dowless. Harris’s attorneys said they had misunderstood the extent of the investigation’s request. Democratic attorney Marc Elias referred to the documents as “explosively important.” He asked the court to consider the way in which the evidence was released as “adverse interference” by the Harris team.

Over Tuesday and Wednesday, a top political consultant for Harris’s campaign and the candidate’s own son had given remarkable testimony about the decision to hire Dowless. The consultant, Andy Yates, and John Harris both insisted Harris did not know what Dowless was doing and proved too trusting about the operative’s claims. Yet John Harris did say he warned his father that Dowless’s prior work on absentee ballots seemed like it could be illegal, a warning that went unheeded by the candidate. As his son closed his testimony with a few kind remarks about his parents, Mark Harris was in tears.

The election board — made up of three Democrats and two Republicans — has finally reconvened after Gov. Roy Cooper named new members amid an unrelated legal dispute. They are reviewing the evidence in the case and then they are expected to decide what course to take at the end of the hearing. Harris’s campaign urged the elections board to certify his win; Democrat Dan McCready’s campaign is asking the board to call for a new election.

“They have two options at the end of the hearing. One is to certify Mark Harris’s win. Second is to call for a new election,” says Michael Bitzer, a politics professor at Catawba College who has been following the controversy.

A prior iteration of the North Carolina election board refused to certify Harris’s apparent victory over McCready because of the evidence that absentee ballots were tampered with. Now more than a month into the new Congress, there is still no United States representative from North Carolina’s Ninth Congressional District.

Under state law, the board can call a new election if the basic fairness of the election is tainted. It does not appear to matter whether the number of votes in dispute would have been enough to swing the outcome. Election board chair Bob Cordle, a Democrat, noted in a recent interview that in prior races in which a new election was called, the margin did not make a difference.

“They did not have to decide that the outcome would have been overturned,” Cordle told WFAE’s Inside Politics. “We obviously want to have a fair election.”

It is a felony in North Carolina to collect and turn in another voter’s ballot. Harris said he told his father then of his suspicions. Dowless, 63, a Bladen County native who declined to testify this week to avoid self-incrimination, is accused of doing just that in the 2018 cycle — hiring a team of workers to illegally collect, sign, forge and turn in ballots.

Both Yates and Harris have denied knowledge of those alleged tactics. But in another email from 2016 displayed during testimony Wednesday, the two Harrises discussed the anomalies that year — as well as the irony that Dowless had submitted a complaint to state elections officials that Democrats had employed similar tactics in Bladen County.

“Guess he didn’t like the Dems cutting into his business!” the elder Harris wrote.

In a televised interview in early January, Mark Harris told Spectrum News in Raleigh that reports, including one in The Washington Post, that he had been warned of Dowless’s alleged tactics, were untrue.

It’s important to remember two things about absentee ballots in North Carolina: Anybody can request one, and at the end of every day before the election, state officials publish a file of which voters requested an absentee ballot by mail and whether they have returned it to be counted.

A campaign could check that file every morning to know how many registered Republican, Democratic, and unaffiliated voters had requested and returned a mail-in ballot.

“From a mechanics point of view, this is a gold mine of information for candidates and their campaign,” Bitzer told me previously.

That treasure trove of data would have given Dowless and the people he worked with a detailed picture of how many absentee ballots were coming in every day from Republican, Democratic, and unaffiliated voters — and, by extension, how many absentee ballots they needed from their voters to keep pace with the Democrats.

Indeed, some of the workers who testified before the board Monday described Dowless discussing with other operatives how the state of the absentee ballot count. Harris even allegedly asked Dowless at one point about his apparent confidence in the state of play in the election.

Investigators working on behalf of the North Carolina election board started Monday’s hearing by laying out the contours of the ballot tampering scheme, which they say was led by Dowless, and then questioned Lisa Britt and several other women who worked for him.

Britt, who was Dowless’s stepdaughter for a time and said she remained close to him, said she believed that she and Dowless had done something wrong. But she insisted more than once that the GOP candidate, Harris, had not been privy to the plot.

John Harris emphasized his belief that his parents did not know of Dowless’s alleged tactics, but he also acknowledged in wrenching testimony that they “wanted” to believe Dowless — perhaps against their better judgment.

The younger Harris asked the elections board if he could make a few final remarks after lawyers had completed their questioning of him.

“I love my dad, and I love my mom,” he said. “I certainly have no vendetta against them, no family scores to settle. I think that they made mistakes in this process, and they certainly did things differently than I would have done them.”

Harris also criticized both parties for working more to protect their political interests than to protect the integrity of the electoral process.

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