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As Mark Harris runs from reporters, his path to House seat narrows

House Democrats say they won’t seat NC Republican, citing ongoing investigations into absentee ballots

GOP congressional candidate Mark Harris speaks as President Donald Trump and Republican Rep. Ted Budd listen during a campaign rally in Charlotte, N.C., in October. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images file photo)
GOP congressional candidate Mark Harris speaks as President Donald Trump and Republican Rep. Ted Budd listen during a campaign rally in Charlotte, N.C., in October. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images file photo)

Republican Mark Harris regrets running from reporters earlier this week, he said Tuesday, as the controversy drags on over his 905-vote midterm election lead in North Carolina’s 9th District.

After attending a meeting of the Mecklenburg GOP on Monday, Harris raced past reporters down a back stairwell, setting off the fire alarm and declining to answer any questions.

“Looking back on it now, I regret it,” Harris told WBTV in an interview the following morning. “I think it was a rookie mistake. I think I probably should have just walked by you guys and said no comment.”

The Baptist pastor-turned-politician, whose election night victory has not been certified by the state elections board over election tampering allegations surrounding a consultant who worked for his campaign, indicated that an itch to get home and watch the NCAA football championship between Alabama and Clemson caused him to make a rash decision.

“I had my wife, I wanted to get to the national championship game that was going on,” Harris said. “Security had given us an option of going down the back steps.”

At the center of the controversy over North Carolina’s 9th District results is a small-time political operative, Leslie McCrae Dowless, who specialized in swinging mail-in absentee ballots in Bladen and Robeson counties, at the southeastern tip of the district.

In the 2016 GOP primary, Dowless helped a candidate named Todd Johnson collect 221 out of 226 mail-in absentee votes in Bladen County.

Harris hired Dowless to work for his campaign ahead of his 2018 primary against GOP Rep. Robert Pittenger, the three-term incumbent.

Harris received frequent updates from Dowless about his work on the mail-in absentee program, and the two developed a friendship.

“You know, I guess you could say I almost took on a pastorly role to McCrae Dowless,” Harris told WFAE Tuesday. “I found him to be a very enjoyable man who I chatted with, and again, everyone that I had talked to seemed to respect him and seemed to love him. I had no reason to think otherwise.”

Despite that relationship and the frequent updates from Dowless, Harris was not aware, he said, of the “harvesting” scheme Dowless allegedly ran, paying people to go door-to-door and collect ballots to hand back to Dowless instead of mailing them in.

It is illegal in North Carolina for a third party to turn in absentee ballots.

In some cases, Dowless may have even destroyed ballots.

A state elections investigator probed Dowless in 2010 over potential election law violations, The Associated Press reported. And a state district attorney has been probing irregularities in Bladen County dating back to the 2016 elections.

North Carolina’s state board of elections twice voted to delay certifying Harris’ election night victory over Democrat Dan McCready last year and launched an investigation into “irregularities” in mail-in absentee vote totals.

Although that nine-person board has been dissolved and a new five-person board will not be formulated until Jan. 31, elections board staff have continued to collect evidence, including meeting with Harris.

The board had delayed a public evidentiary hearing on the investigation amid the turmoil surrounding its makeup.

Despite the ongoing investigation and allegations that Dowless illegally turned in hundreds of ballots, some with forged information — and possibly destroyed hundreds of others from voters who selected McCready — Harris’ campaign has filed a lawsuit seeking certification of the November election results.

The court has not determined a date to rule on the lawsuit, but even if it decides to compel the elections board to certify the November election results, it might not matter: the House ultimately decides whether to seat a new member. Its new Democratic majority has said it will not seat Harris under the current circumstances.

“Given the now well-documented election fraud that took place in NC-09, Democrats would object to any attempt by [Mark] Harris to be seated on January 3,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland said in a statement last month. “In this instance, the integrity of our democratic process outweighs concerns about the seat being vacant at the start of the new Congress.”

Both North Carolina’s state elections board and the House can order new elections — including a primary, potential run-off, and general election — to fill the seat if they find substantial proof of improprieties that throw the November results into question.

With the possibility of a series of three elections to determine a winner, the seat may not be filled until early next winter.

Pittenger has said he will not run for his old seat if new elections are ordered.

“Regardless of the determination of the evidentiary hearing, I will not be a candidate in a possible primary election,” he said in a statement last week.

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