Just about anything can happen in American politics. Those who doubt this oft-demonstrated truism need only to turn their gaze a few hundred miles north to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to be reminded of just how possible it still is for seemingly inconceivable eventualities to come to pass.
That said, it’s extremely difficult to see a path forward for Rev. Mark Harris in his candidacy to become a United States congressman representing North Carolina’s ninth district after yesterday’s state Board of Elections hearing in Raleigh. Notwithstanding the claims of Harris and Republican officials that the allegations of election fraud in southeastern North Carolina against the conservative pastor’s campaign amount to, at worst, minor matters incapable of impacting the election, the evidence presented yesterday spoke loudly to the contrary.
An “unlawful…ballot scheme”
Kim Westbrook Strach, the executive director of the board and, as it happens, the spouse of a prominent, powerful and politically active Republican attorney, put it succinctly yesterday when she announced that she and her staff had uncovered “a “coordinated, unlawful and substantially resourced absentee ballot scheme” run by Harris political operative Leslie McCrae Dowless.
Strach based her statement on findings that she and her staff compiled via conversations with 30 witnesses and 142 voters. The scheme uncovered involved the payment of cash to Dowless “crew” members who would illegally “harvest” absentee ballots.
Yesterday’s star witness for the case against Dowless and Harris was Dowless’s former stepdaughter, Lisa Britt. As Policy Watch Courts, Law and Democracy Reporter Melissa Boughton reported from the hearing room yesterday, not only did Britt confirm the substance of the cash-for-absentee-ballot scheme, but she also dropped a bombshell in the hearing room when she revealed that Dowless had tried to enlist her in an effort to obstruct the investigation. This is from Boughton’s story:
Dowless stared straight-faced ahead from the back of a room at the State Bar as a preview of evidence about his alleged operation flashed on two TV screens up front. His expression didn’t change when his former stepdaughter, Lisa Britt, testified about how he paid her to help with the absentee ballots and then tried to get her to plead the fifth at this hearing in a letter last week.”
Britt testified that Dowless provided her with a typed letter that read, in part:
I can tell you that I haven’t done anything wrong in the election, and McCrae Dowless has never told me to do anything wrong, and to my knowledge, he has never done anything wrong, but I am taking the 5th Amendment because I don’t have an attorney and I feel like you will try to trip me up. I am taking the 5th.”
Later in her testimony, Britt said that she had met Harris several times. This is from a blow-by-blow story from WRAL.com:
“’I think Mr. Harris was completely clueless as to what was going on,’ she says. Still, she says, Dowless and another Harris contractor would discuss how many votes were needed to counteract Democratic efforts in the county.”
And, of course, the votes Dowless helped garner for Harris came at a price; the work that Dowless and his minions performed for Red Dome Consulting – the firm that Harris hired – ultimately brought Dowless more than $131,000 between July of 2017 and November 2018.
Britt was followed to the witness stand by multiple individuals who related the details of how the Dowless operation worked, including a woman named Kelly Hendrix, who testified that, among other things, she had, at Dowless’s direction, signed on to “witness” absentee ballots after they were collected that she had not actually witnessed.
As yesterday’s first hearing day wound down, it ended on a low note for Dowless and Harris when Dowless effectively followed the advice he apparently tried to give to Britt by declining to testify without a promise of immunity from the board.
Yesterday was, of course, just the first day of a hearing that could stretch into tomorrow. In the time to come, Rev. Harris’s attorneys will no doubt attempt to put as positive a spin on the testimony as they possibly can and reiterate their previous claim that, while Dowless’s operation may have been corrupt, it was not large enough to have swung the election.
At the end of the day, however, that seems as if it will be a tremendously thin reed on which to hang Harris’s hat. Neither state law (nor the Democratic majority in Congress that has ultimate authority over whether to seat Harris) requires such a finding in order to invalidate an election and require a new one.
North Carolina law allows the election results to be annulled upon a finding that “irregularities or improprieties occurred to such an extent that they taint the result of the entire election and cast doubt on its fairness” and it’s hard to imagine congressional leaders applying a standard that is in any way more lax.
In other words, absent some other new and remarkable surprise, there will be a very closely monitored election in North Carolina’s Ninth District later this year and it’s hard to see how Republican leaders will want Rev. Mark Harris anywhere near it.