Republican congressional candidate Mark Harris had no idea Wednesday that his son would take the stand at an evidentiary hearing and testify that he warned his father multiple times about a political operative’s illegal election tactics before he hired him.
John Harris, a 29-year-old assistant U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina — who appeared in his personal capacity without a lawyer — provided the State Board of Elections emails dating back to late 2016 between him and his parents referencing McCrae Dowless’ questionable strategies.
“The key thing that I am fairly certain they do that is illegal is that they collected the completed absentee ballots and mail them all at once,” he wrote to his parents in an April 7, 2017, email. “The way they pop up in batches at the board of elections makes me believe that.”
After his father lost the 2016 primary, the younger Harris began studying publicly available election data and noticed irregularities in absentee mail-in ballots in Bladen County. He thought it was some kind of voting or accounting error and told his father about it.
A few months later, as Mark Harris was considering hiring Dowless to run his own absentee ballot program in Bladen, Robeson and Cumberland counties, John Harris reminded him about the curious results. Then his son asserted in several phone conversations and emails that he believed Dowless was illegally collecting absentee ballots, a felony in North Carolina.
Ultimately, Mark Harris ignored his son’s advice and listened instead to endorsements from other people he knew and trusted about Dowless.
“Did I agree?” John Harris said. “No, I thought what he was doing was illegal, and I was right.”
His testimony was unexpected, gripping and completely contradicted 52-year-old Mark Harris’ prior contentions that he was never warned about Dowless. It also ran contrary to the testimony of the Charlotte pastor’s top political consultant that red flags were never raised to him about Dowless’ illegal operation.
“I heard about this McCrae guy, he seems like kind of a shady character, are you sure everything he says he’s going to do, he’s going to do?” John Harris remembers asking Andy Yates.
Yates, who testified for nearly eight hours over two days said he never had any reason to question Dowless, and the Harris campaign never asked him to.
Harris won the 9th congressional district race by 905 votes over Democratic candidate Dan McCready. The State Board refused to certify the election after discovering absentee ballot irregularities in Bladen County.
The five-member Board — made up of three Democrats and two Republicans — will decide after the hearing this week whether to certify the last undecided congressional race in the nation or call for a new election.
Dowless’ associates testified earlier this week about how he directed them to collect absentee ballots from voters, sometimes fill out the incomplete ones and mail them in batches to the local boards of elections. Poll workers also testified about how some early voting results might have been leaked.
Red Dome Group, Yates’ political consulting business, paid Dowless more than $130,000 from the Harris campaign to conduct an absentee ballot program. Expenses also included reimbursements for rent, utilities, office supplies and staffing.
Yates testified though that he never kept or asked for receipts and didn’t verify any information Dowless told him about absentee ballot requests he’d collected. He was paid $5 per absentee ballot request he collected and submitted during the general election, in addition to a $1,625 monthly fee.
John Harris said he was surprised at the lack of record-keeping Yates described and that he was never made aware how Dowless was paid.
“The whole idea of paying by ballot request forms, that was all new to me,” he said.
He also said though that he didn’t believe anyone associated with the campaign knew about Dowless’ alleged illegal activities.
“I had no reason to believe at any point that my father actually knew or my mother or anyone else related with the campaign that McCrae and his folks were doing the things that have been described,” the younger Harris said. “I have no reason to believe that at all. I believe that Mr. Dowless told him [them] wasn’t doing any of this, and they believed him.”
John Harris appeared genuine and self-assured during the three hours he was questioned by attorneys, but he got emotional when he made a statement at the end of the hearing.
“I love my dad, and I love my mom,” he said, his voice cracking. “I certainly have no vendetta against them, no family scores to settle, OK? I think that they made mistakes in this process, and they certainly did things differently than I would have done them.”
Mark Harris wept as his son spoke. He is expected to testify today.
The elder Harris’ attorney, David Freedman, said after Wednesday’s hearing that the father and son had a good relationship and loved each other. He thought John Harris’ testimony was honest and said he didn’t believe it would make it harder to prove the Harris campaign didn’t know about Dowless breaking the law.
“I think John was quite clear, and even though he made out certain points, he said his father believed in people,” Freedman said. “He believed in Mr. Dowless on this occasion and … until Lisa Britt testified, he believed what Mr. Dowless had to say. He’s a very trusting person.”
Britt is Dowless’ former stepdaughter who testified Monday about working for him in the absentee ballot scheme.
Marc Elias, an attorney for McCready, viewed the younger Harris’ testimony as damning.
“I think the truth of this is pretty well laid out,” he told reporters. “Mark Harris hired McCrae Dowless knowing that [he] had engaged in shady and unusual absentee ballot programs in the past. We know that Mr. Harris had equated the activities of Mr. Dowless with fraud — we know that because of an email. … Mr. Harris made clear that he believed this was what McCrae Dowless had done against him in his prior election, and he hired him, I believe the evidence will show, not despite that fact but because of that fact.”
He added that emails from John Harris showed “red flag after red flag after red flag” and his father found a way to justify hiring Dowless.
“Not because some former judge recommended him, not because local officials recommended him,” he said. “He wanted the results. He wanted the same kind of abnormal, fraudulent results that he had been the victim of, and this time McCrae Dowless was going to be on his team.”