Politics & Government

Mark Harris’ son told his father ‘shady character’ in Bladen was collecting ballots

More from the series

Election fraud investigation

Read more about the investigation into the 9th Congressional District

Expand All

Note: The State Board of Elections is holding hearings this week that could resolve the disputed race in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District. This story will be updated throughout Wednesday’s hearing to reflect the latest developments.

You can find the full live updates from Tuesday’s hearing online here and Monday’s hearing here.

Update 5 p.m.

Wednesday’s hearing ended on an emotional note, with Mark Harris crying as his son read a statement about his parents’ actions.

“I love my dad and I love my mom, OK? I certainly have no vendetta against them, no family scores to settle. I think that they made mistakes in this process,” said John Harris after his testimony. Mark Harris began silently crying as his son spoke, and John Harris’ voice trembled with emotion.

John Harris said he believes the political process must be fixed.

“I will be frank, Mr. Chairman. Watching all of this process unfold, we have got to come up with a way to transcend our partisan politics and the exploitation of processes like this for political gain,” he said. “And that goes for both parties...We can all do a lot better than this.”

John Harris then stood up, left the witness stand, buttoned his suit jacket and walked out.

Mark Harris left to receive IV antibiotics related to his recent hospitalization.

The hearing will resume at 9 a.m. Thursday. Mark Harris will be the next witness called.

Harris’ son testimony appears to contradict the candidate

Update 4:41 p.m.

Testimony from John Harris, Mark Harris’ son, appears to contradict the candidate’s assertions that he was never warned about McCrae Dowless’ legally questionable absentee ballot tactics.

In an interview with Spectrum News after a state investigation began into the November 2018 election results, Harris said no one had raised red flags.

“You never heard one red flag?” anchor Tim Boyum asked.

Harris said, “No, not in that meeting. In that meeting it was very clear...”

Boyum interjected: “But at all ever?”

Harris replied: “No, except I would later learn that obviously there had been things in the past that had been looked into, but everything that had been looked into, everything had come out just perfectly fine.”

On Wednesday, John Harris said he warned his father explicitly that he had come to believe Dowless was illegally collecting ballots. John Harris came to that conclusion after realizing how many absentee ballots were delivered in Bladen County in big batches.

He spoke to his father on April 7, 2017, the day after Mark Harris first met with McCrae Dowless in person.

“I told him (Mark Harris) in the phone call I thought they were illegally collecting ballots,” John Harris said. He also emailed his parents to say the same thing, and send them the part of North Carolina law that makes collecting absentee ballots a felony.

Son’s suspicions

Update 2:59 p.m.

John Harris said he sent his father an email outlining felony criminal law in 2017 as it relates to ballot-collecting. But he said that he doesn’t thinks his parents believed Bladen County political operative McCrae Dowless was breaking the law.

“I have no reason to believe that, at all...I think they were lied to,” said John Harris, son of congressional candidate Mark Harris. He said they met with Dowless on April 6 and told John Harris they planned to hire him.

“I believe Mr. Dowless told them he wasn’t doing any of this,” John Harris testified. “I didn’t believe him.”

“I just didn’t believe McCrae, because the numbers didn’t add up,” said John Harris. He was concerned enough that he sent his parents an email outlining the criminal statutes that make ballot-harvesting a felony in North Carolina.

John Harris said he was worried about the political optics of having a “shady character” on the campaign payroll. And he had become convinced that Dowless was harvesting ballots illegally.

“After having the conversation with my dad where he filled me in on the April 6 meeting with McCrae, I expressed my concerns,”John Harris testified. “Namely my belief that McCrae had engaged in collecting ballots in 2016.”

He outlined those concerns in the email he sent April 7: “The key thing that I am fairly certain they do that is illegal is that they collect the completed absentee ballots and mail them all at once,” John Harris wrote.

Mark Harris’ son says he raised concerns

Update 2:43 p.m.

Mark Harris’ son, John Harris, took the stand unexpectedly Wednesday afternoon and said he had told his father’s political consultant that he had concerns about McCrae Dowless before the 2018 campaign began.

That’s different than what Andy Yates, owner of Red Dome Group, testified to earlier Wednesday. Yates said he didn’t recall any conversation with John Harris in which he raised concerns about Dowless’ practices.

John Harris testified that in June 2017, he talked with Yates and told him he was uneasy about Dowless.

“I’ve heard about this McCrae guy, seems to me he might be kind of a shady character,” John Harris said he told Yates. He said Yates assured him he would manage Dowless.

“My impression ... was that he was a little bit wary,” John Harris said. “But that he (Yates) was going to make sure he (Dowless) did whatever he said he was going to do.”

And the campaign would take another precaution.

“They were going to set it up so McCrae was an independent contractor with Red Dome in the middle so there was an extra layer between McCrae and the campaign,” Harris said.

Harris is an assistant U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of North Carolina. He said he hasn’t been involved with any investigations about voting irregularities.

“I have no idea what has happened, will happen or might be happening with respect to any investigation that may or may not exist,” he said.

Harris said he supported his father’s 2016 and 2018 campaigns.

On the night of the 2016 primary election — in which Dowless worked for one of Harris’ rivals, Todd Johnson — John Harris said he noticed something appeared off.

“The Bladen County absentee votes seemed strange,” John Harris said. He sent an email that same night to his father.

“The absentee by mail votes look very strange,” the email read. John Harris wondered if that could bolster a recount. Mark Harris talked with his son on the phone that night.

“He told me because we had exchanged this email ... that someone in his campaign staff or there with him on election night had indicated there was someone who was focused on absentee ballots for Mr. Johnson, and that’s why these results seemed so off,” said John Harris.

Google results on Dowless

Update 1:10 p.m.

How do you recreate a Google search?

That was the unexpected question that came up Wednesday afternoon, during a cross-examination of political consultant Andy Yates. He testified that he didn’t know Bladen County political operative McCrae Dowless had a felony fraud conviction because he Googled “Mcrae Dowless,” not “Leslie McCrae Dowless,” his full and correctly spelled name.

Ely Portillo

Marc Elias, attorney for Democrat Dan McCready, showed Yates a recreated Google search meant to show what the results would have been in 2017, when Yates did the search. The search was meant to exclude results from after July 30, 2017.

“I believe I put NC in,” says Yates. “I did the search a year and a half ago ... I thought I had spelled the name correctly.”

Mark Harris’ attorney objected, because the search Elias introduced showed a result from 2018 that wouldn’t have been visible in 2017.

Elias also recreated a search on CourtRecords.org that Yates said he ran on Dowless. With the misspelling in Dowless’ name, the search showed a past charge against Dowless for assault on a female. Yates said that he saw that charge, but did not bring it up with Harris or Dowless because he believed that it was a minor charge possibly related to a divorce.

“I didn’t know if he’d been convicted or not ... (the charges) were 20 years or more older. At this point he was an elected official in Bladen County,” Yates said. Dowless was a soil and water supervisor. Yates also said a number of prominent local politicians, including former judge Marion Warren, vouched for Dowless.

What about Democratic PAC?

Update 12:05 p.m.

Under cross-examination, Mark Harris’ lawyers sought to show the candidate didn’t have warning of McCrae Dowless’ alleged vote fraud, and to insinuate a Democratic-aligned PAC in Bladen County did similar ballot-harvesting.

Alex Dale asked Yates, a political consultant who worked for Harris, if he was aware that the National Republican Congressional Committee and former Bladen County GOP chairman Walter McDuffie have denied published reports they warned Harris that Dowless was shady. Yates said he was unaware of the alleged warnings and learned of the subsequent denials only recently from news reports.

Dale also referenced the Bladen County Improvement Association, the Democratic-aligned political action committee, and sought to introduce evidence the group had paid people for get-out-the-vote efforts and absentee ballot collection. Marc Elias, attorney for Democratic candidate Dan McCready, objected strenuously.

“You’re smearing this organization,” he said. Asked about testimony from Monday that members of the Bladen County Improvement Association had used Dowless’ copy machine and talked with him, including possibly about voters and staying off each other’s turf, Yates said he was “shocked and floored,” because Dowless always told him the PAC was one of his major enemies.

A board member asked Yates if there was so much rumor and innuendo around Dowless someone should have suspected something was wrong.

“I don’t know that anyone on the campaign should have known,” said Yates. “There may have been people in Bladen County who should have known.”

Dale, the Harris attorney, also enumerated the other political candidates Dowless worked for since 2010, including Democrats in local and statehouse races.

“McCrae Dowless pulled the wool over many people’s eyes, didn’t he?” Dale asked.

“Yes, sir,” said Yates.

Yates: absentee margin could still be legal

Update 11 a.m.

A candidate could get a high percentage of absentee-by-mail votes but have the result still be legal, Andy Yates testified, defending Mark Harris’ results.

“Absentee by mail results can be unusual, but legal, right?” Harris attorney Alex Dale asked Yates, a consultant who worked for Harris.

“Yes sir,” Yates said. He said that strong absentee-by-mail results could simply reflect a candidate investing more in legitimate absentee-ballot drives than other candidates.

In Bladen County, Harris won 420 absentee ballots, compared to 258 for Democrat Dan McCready.

Yates said the Harris campaign’s goal for Bladen County had been to get 60 percent of votes cast, consistent with President Trump’s performance in 2016. In the election, he received about 58 percent of all votes, and 61 percent of absentee-by-mail votes.

“That is something you would have expected, given the percentage you were chasing?” Dale said.

“Yes sir,” said Yates.

Dale also said that there aren’t enough votes in question to overturn the election results, repeating the main Republican argument to certify Harris as the winner.

“If Dr. Harris had been determined to receive no absentee by mail votes in both Bladen and Robeson counties, would he still be the top vote-getter at the end of this election?” Dale asked.

“Yes, sir,” said Yates.

‘Inappropriate’ relationship

Update 10:43 a.m.

Political consultant Andy Yates testified Wednesday that McCrae Dowless had a close relationship with Republican members of the Bladen County elections board, and that he now views aspects of it as “inappropriate.”

Dowless said in a 2016 hearing that he marked absentee ballot request forms with his initials so that the board could contact him — not the voters themselves — if there were issues with their ballots.

“He told me he was in regular communication with them,” Yates says of Dowless’ relationship with Republican members of Bladen County elections board. Dowless said they were “good to get information from.”

Yates said he believed Dowless meant public information, not confidential information. Asked about Dowless’ arrangement involving ballot requests, Yates said he thought it was wrong.

“I would view that as inappropriate,” Yates says.

“If one side had access to that information, and the other didn’t, would that cast doubt on the fairness of an election?” asked Marc Elias, attorney for Democratic congressional candidate Dan McCready.

“I would be concerned if I worked on a campaign and found out the other campaign was getting that information ahead of time,” Yates said.

Yates and Dowless worked for Republican congressional candidate Mark Harris. Yates said he hasn’t talked to Harris since shortly after the investigation began. In a phone conversation at the time, he said, Harris said he believed Dowless was getting a bad rap.

Harris’ campaign owes his company about $50,000, Yates said.

“They have informed me that they plan to pay it, but not when,” said Yates.

Dowless’ felony conviction

Update 9:35 a.m.

Andy Yates, the owner of Cornelius-based Red Dome Group, said he didn’t know about a felony fraud conviction against Bladen County political operative McCrae Dowless because he didn’t use his full name in a Google search.

“I Googled McCrae Dowless,” Yates testified under cross-examination. “At the time I didn’t know his first name was Leslie.”

Harris had told Yates that Dowless had a “minor” criminal issue in the early 1990s, possibly stemming from a divorce, Yates testified.

“That (Google search) showed what I believed to be three misdemeanor charges from 20 years ago,” Yates said. He said he would have objected to Harris hiring Dowless to do get-out-the-vote efforts if he was aware of the fraud conviction that briefly sent Dowless to prison in the early 1990s.

Yates said he never did a full criminal background check on Dowless, and wasn’t asked to do so by Harris.

“I’ve never had a campaign ask me to do a background check on anyone,” said Yates. “I didn’t do a background check.”

Yates also testified that he was unaware state investigators had been looking into Dowless’ absentee ballot operation since the 2016 election, and didn’t know Dowless had invoked the Fifth Amendment in a 2016 hearing on the issue. Yates said he didn’t know about a “This American Life” story about the alleged absentee-ballot fraud that ran on NPR.

On Monday, Dowless declined to testify before the state Board of Elections unless it granted him immunity.

Staff writers Jim Morrill and Brian Murphy contributed.
Follow more of our reporting on The North Carolina election fraud investigation

See all 10 stories
Related stories from Charlotte Observer

Ely Portillo covers local and state government for the Charlotte Observer, where he has previously written about growth, crime, the airport and a five-legged puppy. He grew up in Maryland and attended Harvard University.