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Harris' Retreat Marks A Stunning Reversal

Mark Harris, Feb. 21, 2019.
Scott Sharpe
The News & Observer
Mark Harris testifies in 9th Congressional District hearing on election fraud allegations.

Mark Harris had fought hard to get the results of his 9th Congressional District race certified. He sued in an attempt to be declared the winner and went to this week’s state elections board hearing intending to continue his fight. So it was a stunning announcement when he took the stand for a second time yesterday and read from a prepared statement and called for a new election.

On Wednesday, Mark Harris appeared to hold back tears as his son testified about his efforts to keep his father from hiring McCrae Dowless - whom John Harris believed was illegally harvesting absentee mail ballots.

A day later, it was Mark Harris’ turn to speak. Joshua Lawson, an attorney with the elections board, asked Mark Harris several questions about whether he had told anyone that emails between Harris and his son would not be part of the state’s evidence.

Mark Harris said he hadn’t. Then his attorney quickly cut him off. When they returned about 90 minutes later, Harris took the stand again.

"It's been brought to my attention that I talked to my son, my younger son Matthew that I referenced earlier,  two nights ago about the fact that I did not think John's emails would be part of this hearing. Obviously, I was incorrect in my recollection and I wholeheartedly apologize to this board,"  Harris said.

Harris then said he was recently hospitalized and had two strokes. He said he didn’t know anything about anything illegal in the race. He concluded his remarks by saying "I believe a new election should be called. It’s become clear to me that’s the public’s confidence in the 9th District seat general election has been undermined to an extent that a new election is warranted."

The board of elections unanimously agreed just an hour and 15 inutes later and ordered a new election.

Under a recently passed state law, there will be a primary in addition to a general election. The primary will likely be in May, with the general in October.

As he left, Harris was asked whether he will run. His wife, Beth, said they have to think about it.

For four days, the elections board had called witnesses who spoke about illegally harvesting ballots under Dowless’ instructions, including his advice on how to conceal that.

”For the first time, this agency as able to get solid, identified information, that confirmed what for a very long time had just been rumor and innuendo that’s whispered about in corners of the state that experience democracy differently, and less, than rest of us” said Lawson, the elections board attorney.

He says the public should focus on what he hopes will be changes to how elections are run in Bladen County and other rural areas.

“Because long after we care about the Greek tragedy or the lawyer issues on production, this was something bigger."

Before calling for the new election, Harris’s campaign faced numerous questions from the state board – and Dan McCready lawyers about why they hadn’t produced documents that were required under a subpoena.

In fact, the campaign hadn’t turned over the damaging emails between Mark Harris and John Harris before the hearing started. John Harris brought those emails with him during his interview with elections investigators. Lawson said he thinks John Harris assumed the state already had them.

Harris was also questioned about why he didn’t follow his son’s advice to stay away from Dowless.

“Obviously I read these emails today in a very different intellectual light than when I read them when my 27-year-old son, who is a sharp attorney but I’m his dad. And I know he’s a little judgmental. And has a little taste of arrogance. And I’m proud of him, and love him with all of my heart. But this was a father and a son but in all truthfulness he was right."

Some board members, including Democrat Jeff Carmon, were skeptical.

"So I guess the question that I have to ask, that I did not want to ask, is, you just wanted to win."

Because when you said you were asked about your due diligence, you said you thought about it, you prayed about it, and you relied on other officials. You didn’t take one step to see if the ballots had been harvested. You didn’t ask Dowless, 'are you harvesting ballots?'

State Republicans had insisted for weeks that Harris should be certified the winner. He had a 905-vote lead over McCready, and they said they saw no evidence of enough fraud to change the result.

But Harris' attorney David Freedman said the questions had quickly spread past ballot collection.

“I thought the first half of it was fine. As long as the taint was limited to the absentee ballots = there weren’t that many involved - I thought you could throw out the absentee ballots, and there would be no issue. But the taint seemed to get bigger.”

Now the 9th District will likely be without a representative for nearly a year. McCready – who did not attend the hearing – has said he is going to run if there is a new election. He issued a  statement calling the decision "a great step forward for democracy in North Carolina.”

Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.