Campaigns

Previously unseen messages from Harris roil North Carolina House race hearing

Mark Harris said he believed Dowless over his own son about absentee ballot program

North Carolina Republican Mark Harris said he believed operative Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr. over the warnings of his own son. (John D. Simmons /The Charlotte Observer via AP)

The fourth day of hearings into election fraud in North Carolina’s 9th District started with a potential evidentiary bombshell that roiled the proceedings and could extend them beyond this week.

Attorneys for Republican nominee Mark Harris’ campaign committee turned over a new message Wednesday night to the North Carolina State Board of Elections that had not been previously submitted. In the message, Harris asks for an introduction to Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr., the operative who orchestrated the collection of absentee ballots.

Harris testified Thursday that he did not know that ballot collection was part of Dowless’ absentee ballot program. Collecting absentee ballots from others is illegal.

In the message, Harris referred to Dowless as “the guy whose absentee ballot project for Johnson could have put me in the US House this term.” Dowless had worked in the 9th District’s 2016 GOP primary for Todd Johnson, who was the top vote-getter in absentee ballots in Bladen County.  

The last-minute introduction of this document frustrated the board and Marc Elias, the attorney for Democratic nominee Dan McCready. Elias asked the board to draw a “negative inference” from the Harris campaign’s withholding of documents, a request the board said it will consider later.

The primary question in this hearing so far has been when and what the Harris team knew about Dowless’ absentee ballot operation. Harris’ son testified Wednesday to having warned his father about Dowless illegally collecting ballots during the 2016 election, but his father hired him anyway.

When Mark Harris took the stand Thursday morning, he recounted his first meeting with Dowless, explaining that the operative outlined his absentee ballot operation but specifically said there was no ballot collection operation. 

Harris admitted Thursday that his son’s warning to him in April 2017 was “prophetic.”

But Harris said be believed Dowless, in part because of the relationships he had in Bladen County and the fact that he was a local elected official. Harris spoke highly of his son, who is an assistant U.S. attorney, but noted that he was just 27-years-old at the time, living in Washington, D.C., and had never been to Bladen County or met Dowless. 

The executive director of the election board pressed Harris on the payment structure for the absentee ballot operation, specifically the money workers received per ballot request form. Harris paid Patriots for Progress, an independent expenditure group, for the work Dowless was doing. Harris said he was not aware that it is illegal for such groups to coordinate with campaigns. 

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