RALEIGH, N.C. - The country's last vacant congressional seat will stay that way for months after North Carolina's election board, hearing evidence of ballot fraud and testimony that the Republican ignored warning signs, ordered a new election.
GOP candidate Mark Harris gave up his fight Thursday to be declared winner of November's 9th congressional district race, saying serious public doubts about the contest's fairness revealed in testimony this week warrant a new election.
The North Carolina Board of Elections unanimously ordered a new election Thursday after an evidentiary hearing addressing allegations of election fraud in the U.S. House District 9 race.
The State Board of Elections voted 5-0 in favor of a do-over in the mostly rural congressional district. The board is made up of three Democrats and two Republicans.
A date was not immediately set.
The decision came after Republican Mark Harris called for a new election himself after facing hours of questions on Thursday.
He said as part of his previous illness, he suffered two strokes, struggled with his recollection Thursday morning and is not up to testify due to complications from his recent hospitalization.
Harris said he didn't remember telling his younger son that he did not think emails between him and his older son, John, regarding a Bladen County political operative would be included in this hearing.
Harris said based on testimony over the past couple of days, it is clear the evidence is tainted and a new election is warranted.
"I believe a new election should be called," Harris said. "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."
(CLICK to watch Mark Harris' statement below)
Day four of the State Elections Board hearing began with Harris' lawyer admitting that documents weren't turned over until testimony showing the GOP candidate had multiple warnings a political operative Leslie McCrae Dowless might be illegally manipulating ballots.
Harris' campaign attorney said that communications involving the campaign manager and other key staffers weren't reviewed when they received a subpoena from the board.
Harris’ testimony came a day after John Harris testified that he raised concerns to his father about Dowless who is accused of illegally picking up absentee ballots.
The attorneys for the State Board of Elections and Democrat Dan McCready’s campaign repeatedly questioned Mark Harris about whether he thought his lawyers provided emails between him and his older son.
"We talked earlier about those emails, myself and Mr. Freedman had spoken back in December, and it was my understanding that the documents were all going to be produced," Mark Harris said on the stand Thursday.
His campaign, though, did not hand over those emails. John Harris gave them to the NCSBE when he met with investigators in late January.
Thursday morning, Mark Harris explained why he didn’t listen to his son's concerns. He said his son was only 27 years old, was living in Washington, D.C., and was basing his opinion on data.
He said his son had never been to Bladen County and had never met Dowless or the local community leaders who were vouching for Dowless’ absentee ballot program.
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Harris thought the program was successful because of Dowless’ relationships in the small county.
“I’m convinced that it all comes down to relationships, and I said it's just the relationships that he has with the people in that community that fill out an absentee ballot request form and then ultimately mail that absentee ballot in," Harris said.
He said Dowless said the program was aimed at getting people to fill out absentee ballot request forms as well as sending workers out to voters to ask if those people need assistance and urge them to vote. Harris said Dowless told him, "We don't take ballots."
A new email reveals Harris wanted Dowless because he produced results. The March 2017 email from Harris to a political ally in Bladen County says Harris wanted to meet Dowless because of the incredible results he delivered for a GOP rival the year before.
Anchor Allison Latos asked Harris’ attorney whether the congressional candidate regrets hiring Dowless.
“Yes. I mean, look what it has done for him,” attorney David Freedman said. “The actions of McCrae Dowless have put his reputation and health at risk.”
The NCSBE formally voted to hold a new election. The board's attorney said members will have to vote on an election date at a future meeting.
McCready tweeted out a statement after the decision saying, in part, "Today was a great step forward for democracy in North Carolina."
Gov. Roy Cooper also released a statement saying, "I thank the Board for unanimously doing the right thing. People must have confidence that their vote matters and this action sends a strong message that election fraud must not be tolerated."
North Carolina lawmakers recently passed a law requiring there be a new primary if a new election is called.
The congressional seat has been in Republican hands since 1963.
WAS THIS AN EXAMPLE OF BALLOT FRAUD?
North Carolina's elections director said this week that a local political operative in a rural corner of the 9th district conducted an illegal and well-funded ballot-harvesting operation during the 2018 election cycle while working for Harris. Leslie McCrae Dowless' workers in Bladen County testified that they were directed to forge signatures, collect blank or incomplete ballots voters handed over, and even fill in votes for local candidates who hadn't earned them.
WERE CRIMES COMMITTED?
It's a felony under North Carolina law for anyone other than a guardian or close family member to handle a mail-in ballot because it poses the risk that they could be altered or discarded. The means ballot-harvesting - efforts to collect completed ballots - are illegal. A similar ballot-collection effort by Dowless and others was investigated by the state elections board after the 2016 elections. The findings were shared with federal prosecutors, who took no action. The district attorney in the state's capital city continues to weigh charges over the 2016 ballot fraud case.
WHEN ARE ELECTIONS?
The election board will establish dates for new elections, starting with the filing deadlines for primary elections. A state law approved in December - after the absentee voting irregularities surfaced - requires that both party primaries and a general election be held. State and federal deadlines and ballot requirements mean the general election may not occur until late summer or early fall.
WHO WILL RUN?
McCready is certainly running for the seat again and has been assembling a new campaign staff. His campaign finance report showed McCready raised $487,000 during the final five weeks of 2018, an amount which should stave off other well-known Democratic competitors. His campaign sent out a campaign funding plea late Thursday, citing the new election. Harris didn't say Thursday whether he'd run in the new election, and state Republican Party Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse said it was too early to say what Harris' political future would be. Several other Republicans are likely to enter the race for the GOP-leaning 9th District. The most recent 9th District incumbent, Republican Robert Pittenger, declined to comment Thursday but said in December he wouldn't run if a new election were held.
WHO WILL WIN?
The demographic and partisan data favor a Republican in the 9th District, which a Republican has held for more than 50 years. McCready enjoyed a large fundraising advantage over Harris and a national Democratic wave last fall for an extremely close race. It's unclear if any GOP nominee would be punished at the polls for Dowless' alleged misdeeds and apparent inability of Harris or Republican Party leaders to stop him, said Thomas Mills, a Democratic consultant and ex-congressional candidate: "I don't know if people will pay a price for it." Veteran Republican consultant Carter Wrenn said he doesn't know what to think: "About all that you can say for sure is that it's a mess."
(The Associated Press contributed to this report)
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