House candidate Mark Harris speaks to Ch. 9 for first time since ballot fraud scandal

CHARLOTTE — Wednesday marked five years since North Carolina Republican Mark Harris called for a new election after a ballot fraud scandal brought his down.

Now, Harris is running for Congress again. And for the first time since Channel 9′s Joe Bruno broke the news of the fraud, Harris sat down with him for an interview.

Harris told Bruno that since the investigation, his feelings about what happened have changed.

“Do you accept that your race in 2018 was tainted to the point where a new election was necessary?” Bruno asked.

“No,” Harris said. “And I say no based on the fact that there were not a number of ballots. That would have changed the outcome.”

That excuse doesn’t matter in the eyes of the law. It says the North Carolina State Board of Elections can order a new race when “irregularities or improprieties occurred to such an extent that they taint the results of the entire election and cast doubt on its fairness.”

It was that doubt that had Harris himself calling for a new election in 2019.

“I believe a new election should be called,” he said that year. “It has become clear to me that the public’s confidence in the 9th District’s general election has been undermined to an extent that a new election is warranted.”

That call for a new race followed a public and emotional deep dive into the District 9 election fraud scandal. Our reporting showed Harris campaign employee McCrae Dowless was paying workers to pick up absentee ballots.

It’s a practice known as ballot harvesting, and it’s illegal in North Carolina.

Harris’ own son, John, testified that he warned his father about Dowless.

“I thought everything McCrae Dowless was doing was illegal, and I was right,” John Harris said in 2019.

Bruno asked Harris about his thoughts now on his son’s testimony.

“On the stand and under oath, you said your son was right to have concerns about McCrae Dowless. Are you saying he is wrong now?” Bruno asked.

“No, I said in 2018 or 2019, obviously he had concerns that proved to be accurate. And I said that then. I’m not saying that his concerns are wrong,” Harris said. “Do I wish I had listened to him? I’ve said time and again, absolutely.”

“But again, if everybody understands the facts, they understand that I was receiving recommendation from folks that lived in that county that had worked with this individual and elected officials,” Harris went on to say.

“And so my son had never been to Bladen County, he had never met any of these folks,” Harris added. “And so weighing out those decisions, sure, in hindsight, I wish I had listened to him at that point. But again, that doesn’t change the reality.”

“I still get a sense of defense from you, though, about McCrae Dowless,” Bruno said. “And I’m just wondering, for someone who orchestrated all this, he orchestrated the scheme that ended up bringing down your win. How can you still stand by him?”

“I won’t say that I’m standing by him,” Harris replied. “But Joe, from the beginning, during the beginning of when all of this began to break, I began to ask, ‘Please help me understand what happened.’ And I still don’t think we ever got the opportunity to fully know what happened.”

“Is the reason we’re hearing different answers from you now, compared to 2019, the fact that you’re not under oath right now?” Bruno asked.

“No, absolutely not. I mean, you’re hearing different answers based on the fact more information came out. That’s the bottom line,” Harris responded.

Dowless died in April 2022 after a battle with cancer. He was 65. He denied a plea deal in November 2021 that would have required him to spend a year in prison and five years on probation.

Dowless was scheduled to go on trial in the summer of 2022.

Video below: ‘It won’t happen again’

Now, Harris is running for the Republican nomination for the U.S. House in North Carolina’s 8th Congressional District. Bruno asked him about earning the trust of his district in the wake of the District 9 scandal.

“How can voters trust you?” Bruno asked.

“I think voters trust me based on my life. And I think voters can trust me, based on the 35 years of experience that I’ve had as a pastor and a leader, and an individual that has spent my life working with churches,” Harris said. “The fact that again, at the end of the day, when it was all said and done, that they did not find any reason that I was involved in any way, shape, or form. I made a bad hire, if you want to say that.”

The bad hire Harris is referencing is the late McCrae Dowless. He and 10 other people were charged, but Harris was not.

“Wake County DA Lorrin Freeman -- she praised your humility for calling for a new election. This is when she cleared you of criminal wrongdoing,” Bruno said. “So why not just say, ‘Hey, listen, guys, the DA cleared me. But I recognize plenty of other people were criminally charged. I recognize that there were issues in this election. I didn’t do them. I was criminally cleared. But I get it. I’m sorry. And it won’t happen again.’”

“Well, I can certainly say, I’m sorry the whole thing happened and it won’t happen again,” Harris said. “But I do think that it’s important to point out the facts that I’m pointing out. And calling out the reality that was, I’m very grateful to Lorrin Freeman for her statement.”

“Are you sorry?” Bruno asked.

“Am I sorry that we all went through that? Absolutely,” Harris said.

>> In the video at the top of this story, see the full, in-depth version of Harris’ interview.

(WATCH PREVIOUS: Channel 9 uncovers similarities between absentee ballots in U.S. House District 9 race)