Republican candidate Mark Harris’ son warned his father in 2017 that McCrae Dowless, a potential hire for his congressional campaign, was likely using illegal techniques to shore up votes via absentee ballots. The revelation came during a Wednesday testimony from Harris’ son as part of the ongoing hearing into voting irregularities in North Carolina’s 9th congressional district.
Since the November election, Mark Harris has repeatedly maintained that he had no knowledge that Dowless working on his behalf may have been illegally collecting absentee ballots from voters in North Carolina. But in a stunning Wednesday testimony, John Harris, 29, said he warned his father that Dowless had done just that in a 2016 primary contest. The North Carolina Board of Elections is currently holding a multiday public hearing amid accusations Dowless engaged in a nearly identical scheme in 2018 and whether a new election is warranted.
John Harris, who is currently an assistant U.S. attorney in the eastern district of North Carolina, said he told his mother and father Dowless had done this in an April 2017 telephone conversation when he learned his dad had met with the political operative and was considering hiring him to work on his congressional bid in Bladen County. John Harris said he suspected illegal absentee activity after reviewing absentee results from a 2016 primary that his father lost and Dowless was working for one of Harris’ rivals. In 2016, John Harris noticed the opponent, Todd Johnson, had gotten an unusually high number of votes by absentee ballot in the county. Moreover, he noticed the absentee ballots were coming in in batches, which made him suspect that they were illegally being collected.
After getting off the phone with his parents in 2017, he emailed them a copy of the state statute explaining that collecting absentee ballots was a felony.
Mark Harris and his wife Beth were skeptical Dowless was doing something illegal. They wondered if he had found some way around explicitly collecting the ballots, like escorting people with their ballots to their mailbox. John Harris warned his parents in emails that even if that was the case, Dowless was likely on thin legal ice.
“They key thing I am fairly certain of they do that is illegal is they collect the completed absentee ballots and mail them all at once,” John Harris wrote to his parents in an email.
Ultimately, they overruled their son and hired Dowless. Dowless had described his absentee ballot program to Mark Harris and his wife and said what he was doing was legal. They bought it.
“They heard my concerns,” John Harris said Wednesday. “Their mind was made up.” They had seen, John Harris said, how effective the method was in 2016.
John Harris said he didn’t believe his parents knew Dowless was engaged in illegal activity. Dowless had assured them he wasn’t collecting absentee ballots and they believed him, John Harris said. And after his parents made the decision to hire Dowless, the son said they didn’t discuss the matter again.
On Monday, Lisa Britt, a Dowless employee, testified she was paid to go door-to-door to collect both absentee ballot request forms and actual absentee ballots from voters. It is legal to help voters request an absentee ballot, but it is illegal to take custody of their actual ballot in North Carolina. Britt testified that she and other employees opened unsealed ballots and filled out down-ballot races that had been left blank. She said Dowless instructed her to send the absentee ballots in small batches from post offices so election officials wouldn’t get suspicious as to why so many ballots were arriving at once (indeed, this was what raised John Harris’ suspicions in 2016).
Mark Harris currently leads the race by 905 votes, and John Harris’ testimony is some of the most significant to come to light during the multiday hearing. Thus far, both Mark Harris and all of the witnesses called have maintained the candidate himself had no idea what Dowless was doing was illegal. Andy Yates, a political consultant and key figure in the Harris campaign, testified that no one had raised any red flags about Dowless’ activity to him.
Mark Harris is expected to testify Thursday and his lawyer told reporters he did not know his son would take the stand Wednesday. In January, Mark Harris told WFAE that a report in The Washington Post saying he was warned about election fraud in Bladen County in 2016 was false. He also told WFAE he didn’t have reason to be skeptical of Dowless’ program in 2016 because it clearly worked.
But John Harris testified Wednesday he had warned Yates that Dowless was a “shady” figure. John Harris said he did not recall discussing the allegations of absentee ballot fraud with Yates, but he assumed he and the campaign were making sure that Dowless was not engaged in illegal activity. John Harris said he was surprised to learn how little documentation there was of Dowless’ work for the campaign.
At the end of his testimony Wednesday, John Harris asked for a few brief moments to address the audience at the hearing. He said he loved his parents, had no vendetta to settle and believed they had made a mistake.
“We can all do better than this,” he said, adding a call to “transcend partisan politics.”
In the audience, Mark Harris could be seen wiping tears from his face.