North Carolina State Board Of Elections Finishes Day 3 Of Public Hearing

Feb 20, 2019
Originally published on February 20, 2019 6:29 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

North Carolina's state board of elections just finished Day 3 of a public hearing that is trying to get to the bottom of what happened in the state's 9th Congressional District last year. The outcome of that race still hasn't been called. State election officials accuse a political operative named McCrae Dowless of running an illegal scheme to collect absentee ballots. He was working for the Republican candidate Mark Harris in what was a very tight race.

NPR's Miles Parks has been at all three days of this hearing, and he joins us now. Hi, Miles.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: So I understand today's session revealed tensions within Harris' family over the decision to hire Dowless. What happened?

PARKS: Yeah, we heard some pretty compelling testimony from Harris' son, John Harris, who is actually an assistant U.S. attorney in North Carolina. He testified that he had looked at previous election results from 2016 and noticed a disturbing pattern of results. Based on somebody who was hiring this political operative - this McCrae Dowless - basically, he saw public records that indicated ballots were being returned for this candidate in batches, leading him to believe that somebody in Bladen County where this investigation is centered - somebody there was collecting ballots, which is illegal.

So then his father in 2017 comes to him and says he's thinking about hiring McCrae Dowless, and he really has an issue with that. Investigators show an email where he even forwarded the North Carolina statute that said collecting ballots is illegal in North Carolina to his father.

SHAPIRO: What have we learned about this scheme that investigators say Dowless was running?

PARKS: So for the past three days, former employees of Dowless have described how they collected ballots. And one employee even said she filled in multiple ballots down ballot races, which is illegal in North Carolina. Again, it's illegal even just to collect ballots in North Carolina. They also described how they were instructed different ways to make sure that state and local officials didn't get any red flags about the operation. And the consultant who paid Dowless - his name's Andy Yates. He said a number of times that he didn't have any warning signs about Dowless. That's even though the state investigated Dowless in 2016, and there were a number of news reports about that investigation.

SHAPIRO: Harris said that he knew of no illegal activity on behalf of his campaign. So what does today's testimony mean in light of that?

PARKS: Well, he can't really say anymore that he was not warned. Here's how his son John Harris put in.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN HARRIS: I raised red flags at the time that the decision was made to hire Mr. Dowless. I - that's what I did.

PARKS: But he also says he thinks McCrae Dowless lied to his father about what he was doing to get out the votes. Andy Yates testified that McCrae Dowless said he was only registering people, that he wasn't collecting ballots. John Harris says that he thinks his parents believed McCrae Dowless, and he did not. He says - also added at the end of his testimony that his father did things in his campaign differently than he would have.

SHAPIRO: These hearings were initially scheduled to just last two days. This was Day 3 that just wrapped up, and it seems like there's more left to uncover. How long do you think this is going to last, and how long before voters in the 9th District have a member of Congress to represent them?

PARKS: So at this point, it definitely looks that this could - like this could last the rest of the week, if not longer. We still haven't heard from Mark Harris. He's set to testify tomorrow morning, and his campaign says he is very ready and eager to do that. If the state board - they're going to vote at the end of this hearing whether or not to hold the new election or to certify Harris. If they decide to hold a new election, that process could take months. North Carolina 9th District voters in North Carolina's 9th District could be looking at not having representation in the House until late summer, early fall at the earliest.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Miles Parks in Raleigh, N.C. Thank you.

PARKS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.