New election ordered in North Carolina House district after possible illegal activities

"It's become clear to me that the public's confidence in the ninth district seat general election has been undermined," GOP candidate Mark Harris said.

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By Leigh Ann Caldwell and Dartunorro Clark

RALEIGH, N.C. — The North Carolina Board of Elections on Thursday ordered a new election in the 9th Congressional District after allegations of illegal activity in the handling of mail-in ballots.

The five-member board's unanimous action came after several days of hearings into Republican ballot-collecting practices in the 2018 general election.

Their decision was made after the GOP candidate, Mark Harris, surprisingly suggested Thursday that there should be a new election because the public had lost confidence in the results. On Election Day Harris had narrowly topped Democrat Dan McCready in unofficial results.

"Through the testimony I listened to over the past three days, I believe a new election should be called. It's become clear to me that the public's confidence in the ninth district seat general election has been undermined to an extent that a new election is warranted," Harris said.

It was a dramatic turn for Harris who had been aggressively defending himself throughout the months-long investigation and the four-day hearing, insisting that he had no knowledge of fraudulent activity involving absentee ballots in two rural counties in the ninth district.

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Harris made his declaration one day after his son, John Harris, testified that he warned his father of the possible illegal tactics political operative McCrae Dowless used in an absentee ballot operation. Harris hired him anyway, saying on the stand that it was his son's "opinion" about Dowless but that he was assured that Dowless worked within the confines of the law. He insisted that he that he had no knowledge of alleged illegal activities regarding mail-in ballots.

But Harris was at risk of perjuring himself during his testimony over a discussion he had with his son about emails being used as evidence. He said from the witness stand that he did not discuss the emails with anyone ahead of the hearing. After he said that, his attorney, David Friedman, immediately asked to speak to his client behind closed doors. The board agreed, called for a lunch break and then went into closed session. When they returned, Harris corrected the record.

"Obviously, I was incorrect in my recollection, and I wholeheartedly apologize to this board," Harris, a Baptist preacher, said.

It was at that point he called for a new election, citing health problems and his opinion that the public has lost faith in the election.

The state board agreed. Chairman Bob Cordle said that based on evidence presented this week about "the corruption, the absolute mess with the absentee ballots, the illegal activities that have occurred there in the election office itself, and with the people involved in the absentee ballots," it "certainly was a tainted election."

Throughout the week, state investigators described a "coordinated, unlawful" mail-in ballot "scheme" in Bladen County run by operative Dowless that included the collection of absentee ballots, which is illegal in North Carolina.

Harris testified Thursday that Dowless had repeatedly assured him that he would not be doing anything against the law in his absentee ballot operation. Harris said that after consideration and talking with others he trusted, he decided to move forward with hiring Dowless.

John Harris, an assistant U.S. attorney in North Carolina, testified Wednesday that he told his father he had become concerned about Dowless after studying the 2016 congressional primary in the same 9th District. He testified that his father decided to hire Dowless despite his concerns.

"I can tell you that my view is that they heard my concerns," John Harris said.

On Thursday, Mark Harris said he read his son's advice as "a warning. He added that he "was proud of his son and "I love him with all my heart," but added that his son was young and "judgmental" and possessed a "taste of arrogance."