Yates also said he’d seen no evidence that Harris, a Baptist minister, knew of the alleged fraud.
“If I would have known that, it would have been over at that moment,” Yates told state election officials. “I never had any indication. Never had the first suspicion.”
On Monday, witnesses and state elections officials accused Dowless of directing workers to collect absentee ballots from voters, a felony in North Carolina. They said Dowless and his employees, in some cases, forged voter and witness signatures and filled out blank or incomplete ballots — and then tried to cover their tracks and obstruct the ongoing state investigation. It’s unclear how many ballots Dowless or his associates turned in. Harris holds a 905-vote lead over his opponent.
Yates was the star witness on the second day of testimony before the State Board of Elections, which is hearing evidence this week to decide whether a suspected ballot-tampering scheme tainted the outcome of the 9th Congressional District race between Harris and Democrat Dan McCready. The election has been in limbo since November and is the last congressional race in the country to be decided. The board could certify the results or could vote to hold a new election.
Tuesday’s testimony raised the prospect that the board’s decision could turn partly on whether Harris and other Republican leaders should have known about the fraud — and whether that casts doubt on the overall integrity of the votes.
The board declined to certify the election results in November after allegations emerged that election fraud may have tainted the race. McCready has called for a new election, while Harris has repeatedly denied knowledge of any election fraud and has demanded that his victory be certified. The district stretches along the South Carolina border from Charlotte to rural eastern North Carolina.
Yates described Dowless as a well-organized and curious operative whose job included general get-out-the-vote tasks, such as staffing local parades and festivals, as well as running Harris’s absentee-ballot program. Dowless called Yates and Harris many times a week to talk about his progress, Yates said.
“He was always interested in the numbers to do with everything about the campaign,” Yates said. “He was a political junkie and wanted to know what was going on.”
But Yates said he was given no reason to suspect misconduct by Dowless during last year’s primary or general election, noting that Dowless had made clear to him that he understood the law regarding absentee-ballot voting in North Carolina.
“Mr. Dowless told me that he knew that it was illegal to collect ballots, that he told his workers that it was illegal, that they never touched ballots,” Yates testified.
Board staff, as well as McCready’s lawyer, Marc Elias, also raised the question of whether campaign officials should have known about the alleged fraud, given the multiple red flags about Dowless dating back to 2016.
Yates admitted, for instance, that he was aware of the anomalous results that Dowless helped secure for Todd Johnson, an unsuccessful Republican congressional candidate who won all but five absentee ballots in Bladen County in the 2016 primary.
Yates also described an operation with little oversight, reimbursing Dowless for supplies and other expenses, including wages for his crew of workers, without requiring documentation. He was so unclear about Dowless’s compensation that he could not say how much of the roughly $132,000 Dowless was paid went to the absentee-ballot program and how much was for other services.
Yates also explained that he only casually checked Dowless’s criminal background, with a Google search, after Harris mentioned that Dowless had a minor record related to a divorce 20 years earlier. Dowless’s record in the late 1980s and early 1990s included felony convictions for fraud and perjury, and a misdemeanor charge for passing a worthless check.
Yates said that his company, Red Dome, paid all of the Harris campaign operatives, including Dowless. But he said it was Harris who directed Dowless’s hiring, which was a “done deal” by the time Yates signed on with the campaign in July 2017.
Yet he was as adamant that Harris was not aware of any fraudulent activity as he was about himself.
“Dr. Harris was always extremely transparent with me, extremely honest with me,” Yates said.
Yates said he was unaware that Dowless had invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination at a hearing before the state elections board in 2016 over similar allegations — and said no Republican officials, including the state party’s executive director, Dallas Woodhouse, flagged that hearing for him. State party lawyers had attended that hearing.
He said he was “shocked and disturbed” after hearing testimony Monday and had assumed Dowless had been truthful with him about how he was conducting his operation. “My assumption at the time was that the information was 100 percent truthful,” he said. “After what I heard yesterday, frankly, I don’t know what to believe. I’m just deeply disturbed by it, and it would have been over the minute I had the first suspicion.”
In addition to Yates, the board heard testimony from a poll worker in Bladen County who said early voting results were illegally revealed on the Saturday before the November election — potentially giving campaigns a strategic advantage in the final days of the race.
The board heard no evidence connecting the release of those results to the Harris campaign, but officials could conclude the activity tainted the election anyway.
The poll worker, Bladen County resident Agnes Willis, said she “didn’t feel right” about seeing another poll worker examine the results tally from the county’s early voting machine.
Kirk Ross in Raleigh contributed to this report.