The State Board of Elections — three Democrats and two Republicans — voted unanimously to call for a new election. It might have been the first recorded instance of a federal election being thrown out over fraud.
But it wasn’t the evidence of fraud that made it happen. It was a heart-wrenching drama between an evangelical minister, who badly wanted to serve in Congress, and his lawyer son, who came forward with evidence that contradicted his father’s testimony.
Republicans and Democrats agreed that something went right compared with how partisan conflict often plays out in the country’s hyper-polarized political environment.
But it almost didn’t, despite voluminous evidence that a political operative had led an illegal scheme to tamper with absentee ballots on behalf of Republican Mark Harris of Charlotte. And that worries those who see a massive threat to the integrity of elections in what happened in the 9th District — and believe it could easily happen again if nothing is done to prevent it.
“Without focused commitment by prosecutors and advocates, the stakes will remain unacceptably high,” said Josh Lawson, the state board’s general counsel. “Our unanimous vote only begins to set things right.”
Harris took the stand Thursday, the fourth day of testimony before the elections board in a hearing to examine the evidence of fraud in the 9th District. It was clear that he intended to continue fighting for a seat in Congress. He had lost a close primary for the seat in 2016 and led the 2018 race by 905 votes over Democrat Dan McCready.
Harris described the structure of his campaign and his relationship with the operative at the center of the investigation — a man named Leslie McCrae Dowless. And he denied, vehemently, that he knew anything about Dowless’s alleged scheme to illegally collect, fill in, forge and submit mail-in ballots from voters in two rural North Carolina counties.
The hearing had taken a dramatic turn the previous day, when Harris’s 29-year-old son John, an assistant U.S. attorney in Raleigh, took the stand and described conversations and emails with his father in 2017 in which he warned the elder Harris against hiring Dowless. John Harris believed Dowless had broken the law in a previous election.
'I don't recall'
Harris parried confidently about his son’s testimony, explaining that he hadn’t taken the advice seriously. “My son was still my son — 27 years old,” he said.
What Harris did not say is that he had told another son, Matthew, on the eve of John’s testimony that he did not think his emails with John would come up in the hearing. He did not know that John Harris had already turned over the emails. More important, it was a sign that his campaign may not have fully complied with the state board’s subpoena for documents and communications related to Dowless.
Lawson asked Harris whether he had told anyone this week that he did not expect his emails with his son to become public.
“I don’t recall specifically saying that,” Harris testified.
Lawson asked twice more.
The answer was the same.
Other lawyers in the room perked up: Lawson’s questions suggested Harris might have just lied under oath. When McCready’s lawyer, Marc Elias, began questioning Harris, he quickly turned to the same question.
That’s when Harris’s lawyer, David Freedman, stood up abruptly and stopped the proceedings. Freedman was required under legal ethics rules to inform the board that Harris might be lying.
In a closed-door session with lawyers for all the parties, Freedman offered to return Harris to the stand to “correct” his testimony, according to three people with knowledge of the meeting.
Everyone sensed an opportunity to bring the saga to an end.
Harris faced potential legal jeopardy and a brutal cross-examination from Elias, a prominent and aggressive Democratic lawyer from Washington. The board’s lawyers asked Elias whether he would let Harris go if Harris also agreed to say that a new election was warranted.
Freedman mentioned Harris’s health problems — he was still recovering from a serious infection that had led to sepsis and two strokes. Freedman added that Harris’s medications had affected his memory on the stand.
Lawson angrily replied that Harris could not blame his false statements on medication unless he provided a list of his medications with documentation of their side effects.
He also demanded that Harris say the evidence of fraud presented this week had tainted the outcome in November.
But it wasn’t over yet.
The five-member elections board still had to formally vote to call a new election, and even after that agreement was reached among the lawyers, the two Republicans on the board still weren’t sure, said Stella Anderson, one of the Democratic board members.
“All along, we knew one side of the argument would be that unless we could demonstrate that 905 votes were corrupt, then there’s no issue here,” Anderson said. “That was definitely still the mind-set.”
One of those Republicans, David Black, remembers it differently. Black said there was a robust discussion about the seriousness of the decision to call a new election. “But when Josh came in and said this is what Harris is going to do, I thought, ‘This is over.’ ”
The second Republican on the board, Ken Raymond, did not respond to a request for an interview.
Under a provision in North Carolina election law, the board has the power to call for a new election even without reaching the threshold to alter the margin of victory. The provision is meant for circumstances where fraud is sufficiently problematic — for instance if a campaign or a public official is aware of it — to cast a general “taint” on the integrity of the results.
Black acknowledged that he had been reluctant to invoke that legal provision. His position changed when he learned that Harris would state that the results were tainted, he said.
The board chairman, Bob Cordle, also a Democrat, argued that it was important to the integrity of the institution that the panel vote unanimously, Anderson said. Finally, Anderson said, the five members agreed to vote for a new election.
The outcome is bittersweet for those who have been trying for years to call attention to election fraud in the 9th District, which runs along the South Carolina line from Charlotte to rural eastern North Carolina.
The board’s decision Thursday prompted widespread praise — and promises to take action. Robin Hayes, the chairman of the state GOP, and state Sen. Phil Berger (R), the president of the North Carolina Senate, said reforms to state election law are likely. Even President Trump weighed in, saying Friday: “I condemn any kind of voter fraud at all, whether it’s Democrat or Republican.”
But some who had pushed for a new election said it was the human drama of the Harris family, and not the facts of the case, that prompted the decision. The board had not even heard all the evidence or pieced it together before Thursday’s drama unfolded.
There was the way Harris structured his campaign so that Dowless, the operative, would be paid by a middleman consulting firm called Red Dome Group, preventing the payments from showing up on federal campaign reports.
There was the lack of oversight by either Harris or Red Dome of Dowless’s activities. Their accounting records show that he was paid for legal activities such as get-out-the-vote work and legal collection of absentee-ballot request forms. Demanding that he document his work would have revealed that he wasn’t spending much of his time on those activities.
There were suspected campaign finance violations by the Harris campaign that the board staff plans to forward to the Federal Election Commission.
All of it added up to a worrisome scenario, Lawson and others said, that should never be allowed to take place in a congressional election.
“Had I had the opportunity to continue the cross-examination, and also put on further evidence, it would have become even clearer how deep the fraud scheme ran and the involvement of all the players,” said Elias, McCready’s lawyer.
He added: “It’s important that people not take Dr. Harris’s statements on the stand as an act of graciousness. His statements were the actions of a desperate man who had been caught in a lie who was trying to figure out how to get out of that.”
Scrutiny of the fraud allegations is not over. On Saturday, Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman told The Washington Post that she plans within 30 days to begin presenting evidence regarding the 2016 and 2018 elections to a grand jury.
There may have been no better illustration of Harris’s plight than his abrupt departure from the hearing. After announcing his belief that a new election was in order, he stepped off the dais and walked out of the room with his wife, Beth. His lawyers, still in the midst of the proceeding, stayed behind — leaving the Harrises to fend off a phalanx of television cameras alone.
His shoulders stooped and his head down, Harris, in footage captured by WBTV, walked about a half-block to a waiting car, climbed in and drove away.