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Report: Harris says he hired Bladen absentee ballot guru

December 17, 2018

Republican Mark Harris confirmed to a Charlotte television station Friday that it was his decision to hire the Bladen County operative now at the center of a state investigation into 9th Congressional District election results.

Harris, whose campaign has refused repeated interview requests since the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement declined to certify results in his race more than two weeks ago, sat for an interview Friday with WBTV.

Harris said it was his decision to hire McCrae Dowless, who ran an absentee ballot operation for the campaign. He also said the decision came after Harris’ 2016 primary loss to Congressman Robert Pittenger, the station reported.

In that race, Todd Johnson, who came in third district-wide and has since been elected to the North Carolina Senate, won 221 out of 226 mail-in absentee ballots cast in Bladen County.

Dowless, known as an absentee ballot specialist in the county for years, worked for Johnson that cycle. Questions about Dowless’ tactics came up in a state elections board hearing later that year, and the hearing ended with the board referring a number of issues to law enforcement.

It’s not clear how deeply criminal investigators followed up, but Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman’s office is looking at 9th District results now.

Harris told WBTV that he didn’t think Dowless, who was convicted of perjury in the early 1990s, was doing anything illegal.

In this year’s 9th District Republican primary, Harris won 96 percent of Bladen County’s mail-in absentee vote.

The Harris interview confirmed a late Thursday report from The Washington Post that quoted three anonymous sources saying Harris directed Dowless’ hiring. The Post also reported that Harris sought Dowless out despite warnings about his tactics.

Before that, little was known about how Dowless came to work for the Harris campaign. A primary Harris consultant in the race, Red Dome Group, had confirmed that it contracted with him for get-out-the-vote work. Pete Givens, a Charlotte City Council candidate in 2017, told WRAL News on Friday that Harris introduced him to Dowless in the spring of 2017.

“I thought then, and I still think today, that was the first time he met him,” said Givens, who had previously spoken to The Charlotte Observer.

Dowless is now a “person of interest” in the state’s investigation, and interviews indicate he may have sent crews door to door to collect people’s absentee ballots. It’s illegal to do that in North Carolina, due to tampering concerns.

More than 3,000 absentee ballots requested during the general election in the 9th District were never returned, including nearly 1,200 in Robeson County and 483 in neighboring Bladen County.

Givens said he discussed an absentee ballot operation with Dowless in last year’s City Council race, but it was to convince people to order ballots and to vote, not to pick the ballots up.

“That was never discussed,” Givens said.

The Republican candidate got 39 mail-in votes in a lopsided loss in a heavily Democratic district.

Though Republicans have defended Harris, this week saw a shift in rhetoric and an acknowledgement from top party officials that a new election likely will be needed. Republicans in the General Assembly passed legislation that would allow the state board to order not just a do-over of the general election, but a new primary as well.

The Robeson County Republican Party put out a statement Friday that called on the Harris campaign to make “an immediate and open response” to the controversy. The local party also said Robeson County has seen voting irregularities for decades and called on the state board to “fairly address this pervasive problem in the southeast in an expedient manner.”

“There is enough blame to go around,” county party Chairman Phillip Stephens said in the statement. “It is time to work together for solutions.”