The Slatest

North Carolina Orders New Election in Disputed U.S. House Race

Mark Harris speaks as GOP Rep. Ted Budd and Donald Trump look on at a campaign rally in North Carolina.
Mark Harris speaks as GOP Rep. Ted Budd and Donald Trump look on at a campaign rally in North Carolina. Nicholas Kamm/Getty Images

The 2018 midterms aren’t over yet. On Thursday afternoon, North Carolina officials ordered a new election in the state’s disputed 9th Congressional District.

The unanimous vote from the state Board of Elections capped off a multiday hearing into allegations of voter fraud that went from embarrassing to possibly incriminating for Republican Mark Harris, the nominal winner in the unofficial returns. The hearings reflected so poorly on Harris, a conservative pastor who had previously refused calls for a new election, that he conceded that a do-over would be best.

Among the week’s lowlights for Harris: witnesses detailing how one of his campaign operatives, L. McCrae Dowless Jr., paid them to illegally collect, alter, and submit absentee ballots; his adult son testifying that he had warned his father repeatedly that he had evidence suggesting Dowless had broken campaign laws in the past and was planning to do so again; the revelation that Harris’ campaign attorney withheld documents subpoenaed by state officials; and the suggestion that Harris may have violated campaign finance rules by cutting checks to Dowless’ independent PAC.

“It has become clear to me that the public’s confidence in the … general election has been undermined to an extent that a new election is warranted,” Harris said in a statement he read to the North Carolina Board of Elections before the vote.

Harris, however, denied that he and his top campaign officials were previously aware of any improper activities—a claim that is difficult to square with his son John’s testimony Wednesday that he had told his father repeatedly about his concerns. The elder Harris’ defense? “I just believed he was overreacting,” Mark Harris testified in the morning when confronted with the account of his son, who became an assistant U.S. attorney this past fall. “I’m his dad, and I know he’s a little judgmental, and has a little taste of arrogance.”

Harris upset then-Rep. Robert Pittenger last year in the GOP primary before facing off against Democrat Dan McCready in the general election. Harris led McCready by 905 votes in unofficial returns, but the election board refused to certify the results after learning of voting irregularities that appeared to favor Harris. Specifically, Harris won 61 percent of absentee ballots cast in Bladen County, despite the fact that registered Republicans cast only 19 percent of the submitted ballots.

The ensuing investigation revealed what the New York Times describes as a “precise but amateurish operation, an almost fly-by-night enterprise” led by Dowless that employed workers motivated by money more than ideology:

Guided by the slight, bearded man once celebrated as a local “guru of elections,” they swept up unsealed or incomplete ballots and returned them in batches to Mr. Dowless, who was working on behalf of the Harris campaign. They sometimes filled in ballots, or signed as witnesses for voters they never met, in an ink color specifically chosen so it would not arouse suspicion at local elections offices. 

Dowless, whose criminal record includes felony perjury and fraud, refused to testify before the state elections board. Police are considering whether to pursue charges against him. The state board will meet again to decide when to schedule the new election.