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In GOP debate for Congress, two Republicans criticize Mark Harris over 2018 mail ballot scandal

Mark Harris has said he was unfairly targeted by Democrats during the 2018 mail ballot scandal.
Mark Harris/campaign
Mark Harris has said he was unfairly targeted by Democrats during the 2018 mail ballot scandal.

The 2018 mail ballot scandal in Bladen County took center stage Wednesday night during a debate between the six Republicans who are trying to succeed Dan Bishop to represent the 8th Congressional District.

Two Republican candidates criticized pastor Mark Harris, who is also running, for his role in the scandal.

Harris appeared to have won what was then known as the 9th Congressional District in 2018, narrowly defeating Democrat Dan McCready. Harris even went to Washington, D.C., for an orientation session for new members of Congress.

But the N.C. Board of Elections refused to certify the result after hearing complaints about possible mail ballot fraud.

Harris had hired a political operative, McCrae Dowless, who was accused of illegally collecting mail ballots from voters. Dowless died in 2022.

The first question in the WBT debate asked the five other candidates whether Harris was to blame for what happened and whether he was “damaged goods.”

Two candidates — Mecklenburg State Representative John Bradford and Cabarrus real estate agent Leigh Brown — raised their hands.

“It was Mark under his own testimony who told the courts that he thought a special election needed to be held,” Bradford said. “And he got up and walked out of the room and there was a gasp in the courtroom.”

Harris did ask the courtfor a new election. It came after his son, John Harris, had testified that he warned his father that what Dowless was doing might be illegal.

Bradford said if Harris hadn’t done anything wrong, he should have stayed to fight.

“But the evidence was clear that they had hired someone on the campaign that had done election ballot harvesting and that’s illegal,” Bradford said. “And while he may say the Democrats stole it, all the evidence suggests otherwise.”

Brown — who lost the GOP primary in a special election for the seat a year later — also criticized Harris.

“It was a poor practice and it was illegal,” she said. “It should be held to account.”

Harris was not criminally charged in the scandal.

In the debate he defended himself, saying the number of ballots called into question was small.

“That’s what is fascinating at the end of the story at what the state board of elections did, over 10 ballots and threw out 282,000 votes of the citizens of the 9th district at that particular time,” he said. “It was a great disservice, it was a tragedy, and it was wrong.”

Harris has cast the decision to not certify the election as an unfair plot against him by Democrats, echoing former President Trump’s stolen election rhetoric.

He has complained that a former Democratic elections board member was communicating with the Democratic candidate, McCready.

“There was a lot of communication that violated every ethical thing for the state board,” Harris said. “When that came out is when I said, ‘Enough is enough.’ And we can re-litigate this, but let me be clear. I didn’t get in this to relitigate 2018, but I’m not afraid to talk about it.”

But while the state board of elections did have a Democratic majority, the board’s two Republicans also voted to hold a new election. And the elections director at the time, Kim Strach, was a Republican.

The eventual winner of the special election was Bishop, a Republican.

The winner of the March 5 GOP primary will be heavily favored to win in November against Democrat Justin Dues.

The heavily Republican 8th District includes parts of Mecklenburg and Cabarrus counties and stretches east to Robeson County.

Chris Maples, Allen Baucom and Don Brown are also running.

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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.