RALEIGH, N.C. (CN) – The North Carolina Board of Elections voted unanimously Thursday to hold a new election for the still undecided 9th Congressional District race after the apparent Republican winner called for a redo in light of mounting evidence of an illegal absentee-ballot harvesting scheme.
The decision came four days into an evidentiary hearing over accusations that a campaign operative hired people to collect unsealed ballots door-to-door in two rural counties. This practice is illegal in North Carolina and could be considered ballot tampering.
Mark Harris, a former Baptist pastor, held a 905-vote lead over Democratic candidate Dan McCready in unofficial results for November’s general election, but the state elections board refused to certify the victor after the allegations of absentee and mail-in ballot fraud surfaced.
Testifying before the board Thursday, Harris suddenly reversed course and called for a new election when he took the stand after a lunch recess.
Harris said he did not know about or condone the alleged illegal campaign activities.
“Through the testimony I listened to over the past three days, I believe a new election should be called,” he said. “It’s become clear to me that the public’s confidence in the 9th District seat general election has been undermined to an extent that a new election is warranted.”
Harris also said he is still recovering from two strokes that he suffered on Jan. 18, adding that he “struggled this morning with both recall and confusion.”
Shortly after Harris’ statement, the elections board voted 5-0 for a new 9th District vote.
“I believe the number is sufficient in itself to call for a new election, but it certainly was a tainted election. The people of North Carolina deserve a fair election,” Chairman Bob Cordle said.
Board member Ken Raymond said the race was tainted by both the Harris campaign operative and the Bladen County Improvement Association.
North Carolina Republican Party Chairman Robin Hayes said in a statement that members of the state GOP respect “Harris’ decision on behalf of the voters.”
“This has been a tremendously difficult situation for all involved and we wish him the best as he recovers from his illness and subsequent complications,” he said.
Hayes added the party will “continue to work with legislators and investigators on how we can improve the electoral system so these kind of situations can be avoided in the future.”
Attorney Mark Elias, who represents Harris’ Democratic opponent, McCready, had accused Harris earlier Thursday of “mischaracterizing campaign employees as independent contractor” by using the Red Dome consulting group as a layer between Harris and his campaign workers.
During the start of his testimony Thursday, Harris claimed remarks from prominent Bladen County officials outweighed his son’s warnings that the campaign operative he eventually hired to help him attain votes, McCrae Dowless, used shady means to get absentee-ballot votes for his candidates.
Once allegations emerged that Dowless, who worked as an independent contractor for Harris through the Red Dome group, had hired workers to collect unsealed absentee ballots in rural Bladen and Robeson counties, Harris told reporters no one had warned him that his operative’s get-out-the-vote tactics during previous campaigns may have been illegal.
Harris said Thursday that Dowless lied to him over and over about the program he would run in Bladen County, which he said Dowless told him involved getting absentee-ballot request forms to voters and following up to encourage them to send completed ballots— a legal means of helping citizens vote.
Harris, his son John and Andy Yates, who is the founder of the Red Dome group, had all said during this week’s hearing that Dowless described the program in this way.
John Harris, the Republican candidate’s son and an attorney, gave tear-inducing testimony during Wednesday’s session, telling the elections board that he had warned his
father about Dowless’ operation since the 2016 GOP primary for the 9th District seat.
He said his father trusted what Dowless told him.
“The key thing that I am fairly certain they do that is illegal is that they collect the completed absentee ballots and mail them all at once,” the younger Harris said in a subpoenaed email to his father on April 7, 2017, the day after the candidate first met with Dowless to determine whether to hire him for his 2018 campaign.
John had also sent in another email that day, without written context, a copy of a statute that declared the illegality of third parties collecting unsealed ballots from voters in the state.
“Good test is if you’re comfortable with the full process he uses being broadcast on the news,” he later wrote to his father.
John told the board on Wednesday that he believed Dowless had a “shady” ballot operation in Bladen County because he had analyzed publicly available voting data during the 2016 race between Harris and his primary opponent Todd Johnson, in which Harris lost by 134 votes.
John said he noticed that the voter data was released in “batches,” which lead him to believe that an operative for Johnson in Bladen County was collecting ballots from voters and mailing them in.
In the 2016 race, Harris had called for a recount, but still lost to the candidate that had retained Dowless in Bladen County.
“In weighing it out, I didn’t consider John’s to be a warning that this is a problem,” Harris said on Thursday. He said he simply thought his then-27-year-old son was overreacting and said he can be arrogant at times.
Harris said his due diligence in weighing whether to hire Dowless involved “thinking about it, praying about it,” and listening to other public officials’ recommendations.
He said he did not ask Dowless if he handled unsealed ballots, because Dowless brought it up on his own and promised that he did not.
“This was a father and a son, and weighing out, in all truthfulness today, he was right,” Harris said on Thursday.
Board member Jeff Carmon told Harris that his son’s statements are “beyond a red flag.”
“This was your son, with no axe to grind, who wanted to make sure you were protected,” Carmon said Thursday, responding to Harris’ claim that he did not think of John’s emails as a warning.