NC9 hearing day 4: State board unanimously votes to hold new election
RALEIGH, NC (WECT) - The North Carolina State Board of Elections on Thursday unanimously voted to hold new elections in the state’s disputed 9th Congressional District race.
The state board voted 5-0 to hold a new election for the 9th district seat, Bladen County Commission District 3, and Bladen County’s Soil and Water Conservation District supervisor. The board did not set a schedule for when the election would happen.
NCSBE Chairman Bob Cordle made the motion to call for a new election, saying the people of North Carolina deserve better.
“NC voters deserve much better than this," Cordle said. "North Carolina voters should have confidence that their elections are fair and their ballots are secure. And I just wanted to say as North Carolina voters, that this board of elections will work and will continue to work until the activity of individuals like McCrae Dowless and organizations such as the Bladen County Improvement Association no longer create any confusion and chaos in our elections.”
Prior to the board’s bipartisan vote, Republican Mark Harris said he too believed after his testimony the results of the country’s last undecided congressional race were tainted, and urged the board to order new elections.
“Neither I nor any of the leadership of my campaign were aware of or condoned the improper activities that have been testified in this hearing,” Harris said in a prepared statement. “Through the testimony I have listened to over the past three days, I believe a new election should be called.
"It has become clear to me that the public’s confidence in the 9th district seat general election has been undermined to an extent that a new election is warranted.”
After reading the statement to the board, Harris exited the hearing.
Gov. Roy Cooper issued the following statement Thursday afternoon:
“I thank the Board for unanimously doing the right thing. People must have confidence that their vote matters and this action sends a strong message that election fraud must not be tolerated.”
Democrat Dan McCready also responded to the news, posting on social media.
Thanks to a new law passed by the North Carolina General Assembly in December 2018, there will likely be a primary race in addition to a new general election, meaning the process to determine who will be headed to Washington for the 9th district could take up to seven months to conclude.
Harris’ statement to the board was not the only stunning moment in the final day of the hearing.
Before the former pastor began testifying Thursday morning, attorneys for the NCSBE revealed that major documents in the investigation were only submitted by the Harris committee Wednesday, including a few right before Harris’ son John took the stand.
Attorney Josh Lawson said NCSBE counsel and Harris’ attorneys had been back and forth for weeks about the scope of the subpoena issued on Dec. 1 for documents related to the investigation. Lawson said he and investigators were aware certain documents — including the emails John Harris testified to — existed, but had not been turned over by the Harris team.
Thursday morning, Lawson submitted a transcript of a text message he says he received at 9 p.m. Wednesday night that shows a conversation between Mark Harris and Judge Marion Warren from March 2017.
Additionally, Lawson said, the emails in question were turned over minutes before John Harris testified. Because it was his understanding the Harris team had not submitted several documents due to their interpretation of the subpoena, Lawson refused to accept the documents at the time.
Marc Elias, the attorney for Dan McCready, said he believed these to be willful omissions, and requested the board take an immediate adverse inference from the situation.
“We are on day three of a one-day hearing, and documents are still being produced that are explosively important,” he said.
Thursday was actually the fourth day of the hearing, but the emails in question were produced on the third day.
Lawson asked Harris multiple times if he had told anyone over the last week that he believed these documents were not going to be part of the hearing.
At first, Harris said no, that he believed they would be produced, as his attorneys said Wednesday.
“I’m giving you one more chance,” Lawson said, asking him again.
Just as Elias was beginning his cross examination, Harris’ attorneys asked to speak with the board counsel.
After a recess, Harris changed his answer, and said he had discussed the emails with his son.
He told the NCSBE he was struggling from health problems related to a blood infection that landed him in the hospital and led to two strokes. He claimed to have been suffering from confusion due to the health problems and apologized to the board for not remembering that John Harris’ emails would be part of the election fraud hearing.
Members of the board questioned Harris about the emails as well.
Jeff Carmon asked Harris why he didn’t heed his son’s warnings about Dowless being involved with likely-illegal absentee ballot activity.
Harris responded that when he met with Dowless in April 2017, he believed him.
That meeting took place at the furniture store owned by Bladen County Commissioner Ray Britt, Harris said, and was attended by Judge Warren and friend of Dowless’ Pat Melvin. Bladen County Sheriff Jim McVicker was planning to be there, but couldn’t make it.
With their endorsement, Harris said he essentially heard his son out, but decided to hire Dowless anyway.
Carmon said he didn’t see how Harris could have taken the emails as anything other than his son saying, “Daddy, don’t mess with this guy.”
Harris said at the time the concerns of his son where just that, of his 27-year-old son.
He then said at the time he considered his son to be “a little judgmental” with “a little taste of arrogance,” so he trusted the people he knew in Bladen County over him.
While on the stand, Harris was asked a series of questions by NCSBE Executive Director Kim Strach about the timeline of how he came to know Dowless.
Strach produced two checks, one for $450 and the other for $2,890, written by Harris to Patriots for Progress, the political action committee founded by Dowless.
Harris said this was a “deposit” to secure Dowless’ services because Harris was concerned another candidate might hire Dowless while he mulled over his 2018 run.
The issue, pointed out by Strach, was at the time the payments were made in April 2017, Patriots for Progress was out of compliance with the NCSBE. In fact, the state issued correspondence on March 22 that the organization was out of compliance for not submitting its fourth quarter 2016 campaign finance reports.
Additionally, Strach said, the type of committee Patriots for Progress was set up as cannot work directly with any one candidate, a fact Harris said he did not know.
After nearly 30 hours of testimony, the hearing into what happened in Bladen County and Robeson County might be complete, but the story is not.
NCSBE legal counsel indicated there is a criminal investigation underway, and prosecutors in Wake County have indicated none of the people who testified at the hearing had any kind of “immunity deal” with regard to those proceedings.
Additionally, NCSBE board member Stella Anderson said she had grave concerns about the Bladen County Board of Elections, and wanted to look into what oversight measures could be instituted there.
Finally, the board deferred judgement on an outstanding judicial race in Robeson County, citing the need for more legal counsel.
NCSBE board member David Black said after months of accusations the board was playing partisan politics, he hopes the path forward is one that will shine a positive light on the state.
“I hope that the investigation that our staff has done, and is currently undergoing, will serve as a lesson to those people across the state of North Carolina that we intend to do our best to make sure elections are run properly, fairly," Black said.
Copyright 2019 WECT. All rights reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.