RALEIGH, N.C. — The Republican in the nation's last undecided congressional election said Monday he recruited a political operative now at the center of a ballot fraud investigation because he produced election results in his rural North Carolina county and other Republicans vouched for him.
Mark Harris said he didn't know before November's election that state elections board investigators found evidence that operative Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr. may have illegally handled ballots in 2016. Harris said he didn't know that that evidence was referred to federal prosecutors. A background check by Harris' political consultants missed Dowless' previous felony convictions for insurance fraud and perjury, Harris said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Harris said he decided he wanted Dowless on his 2018 team after noting Dowless' candidate - who was Harris' opponent - in the 2016 GOP primary got an incredible 98 percent of Bladen County's absentee votes. He said he discussed with a campaign attorney after that 2016 primary whether to protest the anomalous result, but ultimately decided to drop the matter.
"The reason that I wanted to hire McCrae Dowless is that, one, I had seen his success and that he beat us in 2016," Harris said. "But number two, I had, basically, the statements from elected officials and respected leaders in the community that the landscape was changing down there and that McCrae Dowless had been a very important part of that."
With Dowless' help, Harris beat the incumbent, U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger, in last year's primary. Pittenger has said he shunned Dowless because he was suspicious of his methods. State elections officials suspect Dowless of tampering with or even discarding mail-in ballots last year.
In 2016, Dowless paid people to visit Bladen County voters and collect absentee ballots from them, a potential felony under North Carolina law, elections board investigators said in a January 2018 report. "Workers employed by Dowless were required to hand-carry the ballots to Dowless in order to be paid," the report said.
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Dowless declined to answer questions about Harris' campaign when contacted by phone Monday.
Dowless was the only person in the nine-county district running a get-out-the-vote effort targeting absentee ballots, Harris said.
A state elections board hearing next week should reveal whether investigators found wrongdoing in the 9th District race, where Harris narrowly leads Democrat Dan McCready. The elections board twice refused to certify the Republican as the winner due to the potential ballot fraud.
McCready's staff has not responded to multiple requests by Associated Press to interview the candidate.
Last month, McCready said if Harris knew Dowless was illegally handling potentially vulnerable ballots, the candidate should go to jail.
"I was somewhat surprised by the sort of outlandish statements that would be made," Harris said. "There've been statements like that made, and statements that there are thousands and thousands of ballots that were mishandled or abused. I haven't been privy to any of the investigation information and unless Mr. McCready has been privy to that information, I'm not sure what his source actually is."
Harris says he still supports holding a new election if there is convincing evidence of ballot fraud in Dowless' Bladen County electioneering efforts and the impact could have been large enough to change the results of the contest.
The state elections board is expected to close its hearing next week by certifying a winner or ordering a new election. Its decision could be superseded by the U.S. House, where Democrats in the charge of the chamber have suggested they may review the election no matter what the state board does. The U.S. Constitution says the House is the judge of the elections and qualifications of its members.
Still, it would be a stretch for the House to step in if the state election board clears Harris and certifies him as the winner after its investigation, the Republican said.
"That would be a strong, strong step or leap to take," he said. "I do think everybody has appreciated and enjoyed the fact that elections are decided and determined by the states and this should be a North Carolina issue."