With North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District still hanging in the balance due to serious allegations of fraud directed at a GOP operative and his allegedly illegal methods of collecting (and in some cases discarding) mail-in ballots, North Carolina election officials are deep in an investigation with an eye on potentially calling for a new election. While state officials have been careful not to publicly accuse leading Republican candidate Mark Harris of wrongdoing, the walls appear to be closing in on the 52-year-old evangelical pastor. On Thursday, the Washington Post reported, Harris himself ordered the hiring of the operative in question, Leslie McCrae Dowless, despite familiarity with and warnings of his history of unscrupulous electioneering.
It’s not just Democrats that are crying foul, after initially standing behind Harris, Republicans in North Carolina are coming around to the fact that it likely wasn’t just the general election that was tainted—Harris increasingly appears to have had help during the GOP primary in unseating sitting congressman, Rep. Robert Pittenger. Harris lost the 2016 Republican primary where there were unusual mail-in returns that skewed heavily towards the last place finisher who had hired Dowless. Next time around, in 2018, with Dowless on his side in Bladen County, Harris managed to win a whopping 437 of the 456 ballots cast through the mail, helping him to a 828-vote overall margin of victory. It was quite a turnaround from the previous primary two years earlier when, without Dowless’ help, Harris only received four of 226 mail-in ballots in the county. The candidate Dowless was working for won nearly all of the mail-in vote, pulling in 221.
“A year later [-] when Harris resolved to run for Congress again, the candidate personally directed the hiring of Dowless, an adept field operative and Bladen County native who had helped deliver that unusual result in 2016,” people familiar with the conversation told the Post. “One person said Harris’s decision to hire Dowless stemmed partly from his realization that he would have defeated Rep. Robert Pittenger if he’d won the mail-in vote by as large a margin as third-place contender Johnson had.”
Harris has denied having any knowledge of what Dowless was up to, but that’s looking increasingly farfetched. “Harris also interacted regularly with Dowless during the 2018 primary campaign, according to Jeff Smith, a former associate of Dowless’s who gave him office space during the spring primary and saw him nearly daily. Smith [said] that Dowless spoke often of talking to Harris by telephone about the mail-in absentee-ballot program,” the Post reports. “The North Carolina elections board has issued subpoenas to the Harris campaign and its general consultant, Red Dome Group. In addition, the Wake County district attorney’s office in Raleigh, the State Bureau of Investigation, the FBI and federal prosecutors are examining voting irregularities in the 9th District.”
The state elections board is set to hold a hearing on the matter by Dec. 21st.