Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.
By Leigh Ann Caldwell

RALEIGH, N.C. — The son of Republican congressional candidate Mark Harris testified before the North Carolina State Board of Elections on Wednesday, saying that he warned his father about the illegal tactics of a political operative that Harris had hired and casting doubt on Harris' insistence that he had no knowledge of fraudulent election activity in last year's election

In a surprise appearance that culminated with an emotional plea to fix the political process, John Harris, an assistant U.S. attorney in North Carolina, testified that he told his father he had become concerned about the practices of the operative, McCrae Dowless, after studying the 2016 congressional primary in the same 9th District.

In that race, Dowless’ candidate, Todd Johnson, came in third even though he won all but four of the 218 absentee ballots cast in Bladen County. Harris was a candidate in that election as well.

Harris testified that his father decided to hire Dowless despite his concerns.

“Do I agree with their ultimate assessment? No, I thought what he was doing was illegal, and I was right,” John Harris said on the stand. “If he had lost repeatedly, I don’t think that they would have decided to go with him, but you know, the fact that he had a demonstrated record of success and other people were endorsing his program, I think that weighed heavily for them.”

This week, the board heard testimony about what state investigators described as a “coordinated, unlawful” mail-in ballot “scheme” in Bladen County run by Dowless that included the collection of absentee ballots, which is illegal in North Carolina.

The stepdaughter of Dowless, Lisa Britt, testified that she would sometimes fill out incomplete ballots for the Republican candidates. She said, however, that she did not fill out ballots for Harris.

John Harris provided email exchanges with his father about Dowless’ apparent practices in the 2016 race, including an email in April 2017, just prior to Harris’ hiring of Dowless, where he told his father that it is a felony to mail someone else’s ballot and that it is “a legal gray area” even if Dowless put the ballot in a voters’ own mailbox.

“I can tell you that my view is that they heard my concerns, that other people that were a lot closer to the situation and Mr. Dowless endorsed his activity, and Mr. Dowless lied to them repeatedly,” he said.

His testimony could have a decisive impact as the five-member board weighs whether to certify the results of last November's results or call for a new election. Mark Harris is the unofficial leader of the race by just 905 votes over Democrat Dan McCready, but allegations of absentee ballot irregularities in two rural counties — Bladen and Robeson — have delayed the certification of the race.

John Harris was called to the stand by state investigators and neither the Harris nor McCready teams knew he was going to testify.

Mark Harris will take the stand Thursday morning, the fourth day of the hearing.

Mark Harris, Republican candidate in North Carolina's 9th Congressional race, fights back tears at the conclusion of his son John Harris's testimony during the third day of a public evidentiary hearing on the 9th Congressional District voting irregularities investigation Won Feb. 20, 2019.Travis Long / The News and Observer via AP, Pool

John Harris also said that his father told him that he was going to hire Dowless as a contractor through the Red Dome consulting group in order to add a layer of separation from the campaign.

Harris’ attorneys have attempted to separate Harris from Dowless throughout the hearing, but Wednesday's testimony damaged that argument.

Choking back tears, John Harris said he thought more about his children than his parents when considering his decision to testify.

“I love my dad, I love my mom, O.K.? I certainly have no vendetta against them, no family scores to settle, O.K.? I think they made mistakes in this process and they certainly did things differently than I would have done,” Harris said while his father looked on wiping back tears.

"We have got to come up with a way to transcend our partisan politics, and the exploitation of processes like this for political gain. That goes for both parties, Democrats and Republicans. And Libertarians," he said.

“I’m just left thinking that we can all do a lot better than this.”

Rich Gardella contributed.