RALEIGH, NC (WECT) - The North Carolina State Board of Elections’ hearing drags on with no end in sight as new information emerges about exactly who was suspicious of the absentee ballot activity in Bladen County, and when they became aware.
John Harris, son of Republican Mark Harris, took the stand Wednesday to testify as the hearing began its third afternoon.
John Harris, an attorney, said he would be representing himself, but he could not speak on behalf of his employer, the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
The primary focus of questions to John Harris were about his suspicions about absentee ballot activity in Bladen County and of McCrae Dowless, the man at the center of the state board’s investigation.
In 2016 when his father lost the Republican primary for the 9th Congressional District seat, John Harris said he noticed a trend in absentee by mail ballots that he found startling.
"(The data) suggested there were far more absentee by mail ballots cast in Bladen County than would be expected,” he said.
At that time, John Harris said he assumed a ballot tabulator was malfunctioning because the results were so abnormal to him.
On election night, he said his father mentioned one of the campaign staff had heard there was “a guy” in Bladen County working an absentee program for Todd Johnson.
In November of that year, when it was announced there would be an NCSBE hearing about an election protest in Bladen County, John Harris received a Republican fundraising email that he forwarded to his father.
“Preaching to the choir,” he wrote about the message that said there was something untoward going on in Bladen County.
In a response, Mark Harris connects that Dowless, who had filed the protest, was the same “guy” who was working for Johnson, and he guessed Dowless “didn’t like the Dems cutting into his business.”
The next April, Mark Harris and his wife Beth met with Dowless in Bladen County.
Afterward, during a phone call with their son, they explained Dowless’ services.
John Harris said he warned his father that he believed Dowless was illegally picking up absentee by mail ballots, and warned him about using Dowless’ services.
He surmised Dowless was picking up ballots, he said, because the ballots were coming in in batches, which he said would indicate someone was collecting and then mailing them all at one time.
Lisa Britt said Monday one of the ways the workers in 2018 tried to not create suspicion was by avoiding this “batching problem.”
In an email to his father, John Harris said he was “fairly certain” what Dowless was doing was illegal. He even emailed the state statute that explains how collecting someone else’s ballot is a Class I felony.
“This is not legal advice,” the email reads, but goes on to say, “The key thing that I am fairly certain they do that is illegal is that they collect the completed absentee ballots and mail them all at once.”
John Harris said he was particularly concerned that if his father used Dowless and the primary race with Robert Pittenger was close, that Pittenger might use the connection to Dowless in a protest.
Despite the warning, John Harris said his parents believed Dowless was telling the truth when he said he was not illegally collecting absentee ballots.
John Harris said he recommended his parents use the litmus test of if they would be comfortable with Dowless’ operation making headlines.
Ultimately, Mark Harris decided to hire Dowless, and John Harris said that was the last they spoke of it until news broke in late November 2018.
John Harris’ testimony came after political consultant Andy Yates reiterated in the second day of his testimony that he had no suspicion of Dowless’ alleged illegal activity. Yates was asked additional questions for the entirety of Wednesday morning, and in total spent nearly eight hours on the witness stand.
Attorney for Dan McCready, Marc Elias, spent time going over the Internet search Yates said he did on Dowless that allegedly turned up nothing but the misdemeanor charges.
Using a feature of Google search, Elias said he and his team isolated a search for the misspelling of Dowless’ name Yates testified to using.
Limiting the results to those before June 30, 2017, the exhibit showed that results included information about the 2016 protest hearing.
The Harris team objected to the use of the exhibit.
Multiple times during his testimony, John Harris referred to Dowless as “shady,"
John Harris says he may not have expressed his concerns about Dowless in as “stark” of terms to Yates, but at the time, he believed Yates shared his wariness.
He said with Yates in the picture, he was less concerned that something untoward would happen.
Yates was questioned again about the payment mechanism used to pay and reimburse Dowless.
With the total somewhere between $131-132,000 paid to Dowless over the course of the campaign, he made up 5 percent of the entire campaign budget.
John Harris said until Tuesday, he was unaware Dowless was being paid per absentee ballot request, but in general he knew he was being paid through Red Dome Group.
He said it was a matter of political optics, that it would look better in the long run for there to be a “layer of separation” between Dowless and Mark Harris in the form of Red Dome.
After questions from the board, staff and attorneys were satisfied, John Harris asked if he could give a closing statement.
As he spoke, his voice broke with emotion:
John Harris said he was disappointed in both political parties for how this process was handled, and that for the good of the state, something has to change.
Across the room from his son, Mark Harris became visibly emotional as the statement was made.
Marc Elias commended John Harris for testifying.
The hearing recessed at 5 p.m. Wednesday to allow Mark Harris to travel back to Charlotte for medical treatment related to a recent illness.
NCSBE Chair Bob Cordle said the hearing would reconvene at 9 a.m. Thursday morning. Mark Harris is anticipated to be the first witness of the day, and the last witness called by NCSBE staff.