North Carolina Republican Mark Harris is expected to testify Wednesday in what could be the final leg of a three-day hearing on apparent election fraud that may have swung hundreds of votes in his favor during the 2018 midterms.
“He has absolutely nothing to hide,” Alex Dale, one of Harris’ lawyers, told The Charlotte Observer.
The North Carolina State Board of Elections will decide after its public hearing slate that began Monday whether it will certify last fall’s 9th District election result Harris, the GOP candidate and a former Baptist minister, has an unofficial 905-vote lead over Democrat Dan McCready in the contest.
McCready and the state Democratic Party have called for a new election, arguing that the illegal ballot harvesting scheme — allegedly perpetrated by a man hired by Harris’ top consultant — has “tainted” the results.
Republicans have said the board should certify the initial results if investigators are unable to prove that the scheme affected the final outcome.
Even if the board of three Democrats and two Republicans does vote to certify Harris’ victory — it needs three board members to do so — the Democrat-controlled U.S. House still has the final say on whether or not it will seat Harris.
The seat is the only one in the House that has remained vacant since the beginning of the 116th Congress. There are two other current vacancies: Pennsylvania’s 12th (Republican Tom Marino resigned last month for a job in the private sector) and North Carolina’s 3rd (Republican Walter B. Jones died earlier this month).
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On the witness stand Tuesday, Harris’ top consultant, Andy Yates, claimed total ignorance about any illegal activity undertaken on the GOP nominee’s campaign.
The local elections board — as well as other local authorities — have for months been investigating the alleged ballot harvesting scheme in the 9th District apparently executed by Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr.
Yates’ Red Dome Group hired the GOP political operative for Harris’ 2018 campaign.
“I don’t know what to believe about McCrae Dowless. I don’t know whether or not to believe anything Mr. Dowless ever told me,” Yates said Tuesday.
The hearing could last through Friday.
Yates indicated that he felt betrayed by Dowless for tarnishing his reputation. Dowless is believed to have paid a small squad of people to illegally collect absentee-by-mail ballots and sign as witnesses on ballots they didn’t watch being filled out in Bladen and Robeson counties.
“I’ve worked too hard to build up my reputation in this business, worked too hard to build up Red Dome, to hire one person and let all that be torn down,” Yates said.
Yates, as the Harris campaign’s top consultant, appeared to be the primary buffer between Dowless and the candidate himself. But Harris has said previously that he received frequent updates from Dowless about his work on the mail-in absentee program.
The candidate and Dowless even developed a friendship.
“You know, I guess you could say I almost took on a pastorly role to McCrae Dowless,” Harris told WFAE in January. “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 the operative 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.
Dowless refused on Monday to testify at the hearing unless he was granted immunity. The board opted not to do so.
Other witnesses — one of whom admitted to committing election crimes — testified that they do not believe Harris knew about the illegal mechanics of Dowless’ operation.
Lisa Britt, who admitted Monday that she illegally tampered with absentee ballots in Bladen and Robeson counties at the direction of Dowless, supported Harris’ assertion that he did not know his campaign consultants were doing anything illegal.
“I think you’ve got one innocent person in this whole thing who had no clue to what was going on, and he’s getting it really bad here — and that’s Mr. Mark Harris. And it’s terrible,” Britt said.