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Politics

Dispatches: Mark Harris' Son Says He Warned His Dad About Dowless

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Raleigh News & Observer
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John Harris, Republican Mark Harris' son, said warned his father about Bladen County political operative McCrae Dowless.

The North Carolina Board of Elections enters its third day of hearings into allegations of election fraud in the 9th Congressional District. WFAE's Steve Harrison is covering the hearing in Raleigh. Check back throughout the day for live updates. 

The five-member board will hear from its own investigators, witnesses and the campaigns of Republican Mark Harris and Democrat Dan McCready. Then, the board will consider what to do next.

If the board finds the race was tainted by irregularities or improprieties, it could decide to certify Harris, who leads in unofficial results by 905 votes, as the winner. It could also vote to have a new election.

Updated: 6:45 p.m. 

At the end of his testimony, John Harris asked to speak. He talked about his parents and the decisions they made.

“I certainly have no vendetta against them, no families score to settle, OK?” Harris said. “I think that they made mistakes in this process, and they did things differently than I would have done.”

As John Harris spoke, Mark Harris began to cry inside the chamber. John Harris had said earlier in his testimony that the two had not spoken much in the past month, in part due to the subpoenas they were both under.

“But engaging in this process, and watching it all unfold, I’ve thought that we have got to come up with a way to transcend our partisan politics and the exploitation of processes like this for political gain. And frankly, when I’m coming out of this process, I’m thinking we can all do a lot better than this.”

John Harris then left the stand and walked past his father. He didn’t speak to reporters.

Mark Harris is scheduled to be the first witness called Thursday morning.

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Credit Raleigh News & Observer
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Republican Mark Harris is expected to take the stand tomorrow morning.

Updated: 3:15 p.m.

Mark Harris’s son, John Harris, is currently testifying.

John Harris – an assistant U.S. Attorney in the Eastern District of North Carolina — said he had a phone call with political consultant Andy Yates about his father’s interest in hiring political operative McCrae Dowless to lead the get-out-the-vote effort in Bladen County. He said he had “general concerns” about working with Dowless.

“I don't remember exactly what I said, but my recollection was having general concerns,” John Harris said. “I had heard some things about this McCrae Dowless person. I had heard about this McCrae guy. He may be a shady character. And in that conversation, Andy assured me that ‘We will make sure he does what he says he will do.’”

A year earlier, John Harris had sent his father an email after Harris lost the 2016 GOP primary.

“I noticed the Bladen County absentee votes seemed strange,” John Harris said in the email to Mark Harris.

[View the email from John Harris to Mark Harris (PDF)]

In the 2016 GOP primary, Todd Johnson – who finished third – received 221 of 226 absentee mail ballots in Bladen County.

John Harris said he spoke on the phone to his father that night.

“He told me that someone in his campaign had indicated that there was someone in Bladen County who was focused on absentee ballots, and that’s why these results seemed to be off,” John Harris said.

John Harris said he'd told his father to "make sure [his] lawyers look at Bladen County." He said he'd told his father he believed Dowless had collected ballots in 2016 and that they'd "been victims of a massive vote fraud scheme."

Evidence presented during his testimony also showed that John Harris had sent his father an email in April 2017, warning him that it's against the law to collect absentee ballots. 

John Harris' testimony differs from an interview Mark Harris gave with WFAE in January, where he said no one warned him about Dowless after the 2016 primary. In that interview, Mark Harris said that Dowless' absentee ballot program had been "verified as legal and was following the letter of the law."

"So why would I expect that success was a bad thing?" Mark Harris said in the interview.

[Related Content: Mark Harris On Dowless Absentee Results: 'Why Would I Expect Success Was A Bad Thing?']

Updated: 12:40 p.m.

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Political reporter Steve Harrison gives an update on the third day of the 9th District hearing.

Andy Yates of Red Dome Group is still on the stand. This is his sixth hour of testimony, stretching back to Tuesday afternoon.

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Bladen County political operative McCrae Dowless, the man at the center of the state's investigation, has refused to testify.

Dan McCready attorney Marc Elias tried to recreate a Google search of McCrae Dowlessfrom 2017, based on Yates’s testimony. Yates had said that he’d previously conducted a Google search for McCrae Dowless.

When Elias showed the results, the first story that appeared was about the State Board of Elections investigations from the 2016 election. Yates had previously said he didn’t know anything about that hearing.

But Yates attorney Alex Dale quickly objected. He said the recreated search still showed news stories from 2018.

Elias also tried to recreate a criminal background search that Yates said he did. That check showed that Dowless was charged with assault on a female.

Yates said he remembers that, and said that charge was “consistent” with what Mark Harris had previously told him about charges stemming from his divorce. Yates and Elias then got in an argument on whether it was appropriate for Yates to have assumed that the assault charge was a misdemeanor.

Harris is expected to take the stand later this afternoon.

Updated: 12:20 p.m.

Republican Mark Harris's lawyer, Alex Dale, argued this morning that high absentee ballot totals aren't a sign of wrongdoing. In the November general election, Harris got 420 absentee mail votes in Bladen County to Democrat Dan McCready’s 258 votes.

He asked Harris’ political consultant Andy Yates, of Red Dome Group, whether it was unusual that McCready won 81 percent of the absentee ballots in Mecklenburg County:   

YATES: My knowledge of the race, based on the fact that Mr. McCready was running an aggressive campaign and spending much more money than his opponent, those results would not be unusual. They would be what I would've expected.

DALE: So a high absentee ballot by mail result is not going to suggest to you necessarily illegality?

YATES: That's correct.

Dale also questioned Yates about the activities of the Bladen Improvement Association PAC, which worked on behalf of Democrats. Yates said Bladen County political operative McCrae Dowless told him the PAC didn't follow the rules, and that the two groups agreed not to invade each other's turf.

That prompted elections board Chair Robert Cordle to ask Yates: 

CORDLE: Then if you add that to what unscrupulous stuff Mr. Dowless was doing, that you said you would not put up with, if you had known it, you've got a pretty bad situation down there in that county … isn't that correct?

YATES: It sounds like it to me. I will say he never offered any evidence of what the Bladen Improvement PAC was doing, because I would've immediately reported that.

Elections officials say they expect to call Mark Harris to the stand today as well.

Updated: 10:35 a.m.

Andy Yates of the Red Dome Group is on the stand again Wednesday morning, being questioned by Dan McCready attorney Marc Elias.

Elias asked him several questions about what he knew about McCrae Dowless. He asked him about a January 2017 “This American Life” episode about election fraud in Bladen County. Yates said he hadn’t heard that show, and he doesn’t listen to NPR.

That show talked about allegations of fraud by a Democratic Party funded group, the Bladen Improvement Association, and also had comments from Dowless’ absentee mail program.

Elias also asked Yates about Dowless’ testimony in a 2016 N.C. Board of Elections hearing about fraud in Bladen County. Yates said he wasn’t aware of the testimony before the November 2018 election, and that no one told him about it either.

Yates was also questioned about testimony Dowless gave in that hearing, in which Dowless said he would place his initials on absentee mail ballot request forms that he submitted to the Bladen County Board of Elections. Yates said he didn’t know that Dowless did that, and he said he didn’t think it was appropriate.

Dowless placed his initials on the request forms so the board could contact him if there was a problem with the request. Yates said he thought it would be unfair for one candidate to get an early heads up about a problem with an absentee ballot request.

“That would not be fair,” he said.

Yates is now being questioned by Alex Dale, who represents Republican Mark Harris. Harris is scheduled to be questioned next.

Updated: 10:15 a.m.

Republican Mark Harris will take the stand today. His testimony will come after people associated with his campaign said they illegally collected absentee ballots and committed a number of fraudulent activities with them, including forging witness signatures and filling in incomplete ballots.

Harris has so far denied any knowledge of the wrongdoing.

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Andy Yates, head of political consulting firm Red Dome Group, said he had no reason to distrust Bladen County political operative McCrae Dowless.

Yesterday, Andy Yates of the Red Dome Group, a political consulting firm hired by the Harris campaign, testified about his work during the November election and his connection to Bladen County political operative McCrae Dowless. Dowless is at the center of the state’s investigation.

[Related Content: Dispatches: Second Day Of 9th District Hearing Wraps Up In Raleigh]

Red Dome paid Dowless to head up an aggressive effort to get Bladen County residents to vote absentee by mail. Yates said Dowless was paid $5 for every absentee ballot form requested in the general election.

Yates said Harris was the one who hired Dowless — not him. He also said he knew nothing about illegal election activity, and that Dowless told him that he and his employees never picked up absentee mail ballots.

"[Dowless sounded like someone] who knew the law well, sounded like someone who knew the county well," Yates said yesterday. "There were no red flags at all."

Yates said if he had known of illegal activity, he would have “cut off all contact” with Dowless.

“I would have told Dr. Harris to fire him immediately,” Yates said. “If he didn't do it, I would have resigned. I care deeply about our democracy. I wouldn't put up with that crap.”

Bladen County poll workers also took the stand yesterday, answering questions about reports that the county board broke election rules by counting early votes before Election Day.

[Related Content: FAQ City: Understanding The 9th Congressional District Race]

Poll workers had differing testimonies. One witness said she did not allow anyone to see the “tape,” or computer printout, of vote totals early. Another witness said he did see early vote results, but not of the 9th District race. He said that he saw the early voting results from the Bladen County Sheriff’s Office race the Saturday before the election because “that’s the way [Bladen County poll workers have] always done it.

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