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In TV Interview, Mark Harris Says He Hired McCrae Dowless


Embattled Republican Mark Harris said in a TV interview Friday that he personally approved hiring Bladen County political operative McCrae Dowless, and said Dowless told him that he and his employees would never collect ballots from voters.

Harris spoke with Nick Ochsner of WBTV about the N.C. Board of Elections fraud investigation in the 9th Congressional District race, where Harris is leading Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes.

The interview came after a Washington Post story Thursday night that said Harris wanted to hire Dowless after Dowless had run an absentee mail ballot program in the 2016 Republican primary for one of Harris' opponents, Todd Johnson.

Harris said that was correct. He said after seeing how effective Dowless was in Bladen County - Johnson won 221 of 226 of asbentee mail ballots - Harris said he wanted Dowless to work for him in 2018.

He said a number of officials vouched for Dowless at time, including Bladen County Commissioner Ray Britt.

But the Washington Post story also said that Harris was told on the night of the primary in 2016 that something improper likely happened in Bladen County during the primary. That allegation was not addressed in the WBTV interview.

Harris said he met with Dowless, who explained to him how he ran his absentee mail ballot operation.

Harris said his employees would ask people if they wanted to fill out absentee by mail ballot requests. Those people would later return to the voter's homes, and ask if they needed help filling out their ballot, and to make sure they voted.

"I remember him saying specifically that they were not to take a ballot," Harris said during the interview.

Harris said he remembers Dowless telling him that "even if it's a 95-year-old woman, you can not take her ballot. You can walk her to the mailbox and raise the flag, but you don't take the ballot."

But voters have told WFAE and other media outlets that people working for Dowless did collect their ballots, which is known as "harvesting" ballots. It's illegal in North Carolina.

Dowless employees have also told WSOC-TV and other media outlets that they collected ballots from voters.

"I had no reason to think what he was doing was illegal," Harris said.

Also not addressed in the interview: Whether Harris spoke with Dowless during the campaign about how the absentee mail operation was going, such as the number of requests for mail-in ballots. The interview also did not address the unsual absentee mail ballot vote totals from the 2018 primary and general election.

Harris said state Republicans could have come to his defense more vigorously.

"I don't feel the circling of the wagons around (me) like the way the Democrats are circling the wagons around McCready," he said.

The General Assembly has also passed a bill that would require new primaries if the state elections board calls for a new election. That would mean Harris could face Pittenger again, as well as other possible candidates.

Harris said he didn't understand why that would be necessary.

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.