RALEIGH, N.C. -- The North Carolina Board of Elections voted unanimously on Thursday in favor of holding a new election in the 9th Congressional District after an investigation into absentee ballot irregularities.
The decision comes shortly after Mark Harris, the Republican leading in the contested race, said a new election should be called. He told the state board he does not condone the activities that have come to light after testimony this week and he feels that the public's confidence in the process is shaken.
Harris also said he is struggling with recall and confusion during his testimony to the state elections board due to two recent strokes.
"Though I thought I was ready to undergo the rigors of this hearing, and I'm getting stronger, I clearly am not," Harris said during Thursday's hearing. "And I struggled this morning with both recall and confusion. Neither I nor any of the leadership of my campaign were aware of, or condoned, the improper activities that have been testified to in this hearing. Through the testimony I've listened to over the past three days, I believe a new election should be called. It's become clear to me that the public's confidence in the 9th District seat general election has been undermined to an extent that a new election is warranted."
The new election will come after months of chaos in which North Carolina remained the only state without settled election results from November. Red flags had been raised regarding irregular and potentially compromised absentee ballots stemming from the work of a political consultant hired by Harris' campaign, which led many people from both sides of the aisle to call into question the integrity of the election.
The state board of elections had voted in December not to certify the results in which Harris, a Baptist minister, led Democrat Dan McCready, a businessman and retired Marine, by 905 votes.
North Carolina's governor, Democrat Roy Cooper, wrote in a statement, "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."
Republican candidate calls for new election
Harris' call on Thursday was a dramatic reversal from his previous stance that the election board should certify the results of the election, in which unofficial tallies have Harris winning 905 more votes than his Democratic opponent.
Harris had previously asked a judge to certify the unsettled election, and had argued in his petition to the court that the board of elections is legally required to certify the results. He also suggested he should be seated in Congress while the process plays out.
Harris said in December that he was committed to cooperating with the investigation, and had previously said he would support a new election if there were proof of illegal activity on either side to such a degree that it could have changed the outcome.
State Republicans, including Harris, have argued up until this point there is not enough evidence of disputed ballots that could have changed the outcome.
North Carolina's state Republican Party, which had been pushing election officials to certify the contested election results in favor of Harris, says it supports Harris' surprise decision to call for a new election.
State Party Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse tweeted, "Today I ask for everyone's prayers for @MarkHarrisNC9. Today is a tremendously difficult day for his family, supporters and the entire @NCGOP We support our candidates decision in this matter. We will do everything we can to help the process and system improve in the future."
The state party's chairman, Robin Hayes, added in a statement, "We respect Dr. Harris' decision on behalf of the voters. This has been a tremendously difficult situation for all involved and we wish him the best as he recovers from his illness and subsequent complications. We will continue to work with legislators and investigators on how we can improve the electoral system so that these kinds of situations can be avoided in the future.
"The people of North Carolina deserve nothing less than the full confidence and trust in the electoral system. We'd like to thank the hard-working staff and members of the North Carolina State Board of Elections for their professionalism and dedication in this investigation."
The board's decision was greeted with cheers by state Democrats.
The chairman of the North Carolina Democratic Party, Wayne Goodman, said in a statement the decision would undo an attempt "to steal an election."
"Over an extraordinary four-day hearing, investigators laid out point-by-point how Republican Mark Harris' campaign funded and directed an elaborate, illegal scheme to steal an election," Goodwin said. "North Carolina Republicans, following Mark Harris' lead, repeatedly lied to the people of the Ninth district, silenced their voices, and undermined our entire state's faith in our democracy. This saga could only have ended in a new election, and we look forward to repairing the harm dealt by Republicans and giving the people of the Ninth district the representative they deserve."
Son's stunning testimony
On Wednesday, Harris' son John testified that he had warned his father about a political operative who's at the center of the investigation into election irregularities. The testimony was the first evidence that Mark Harris was told that operative Leslie McRae Dowless may have taken part in questionable ballot activity in the past.
It marked a dramatic turn in the North Carolina Board of Elections' evidentiary hearing, as John Harris contradicted his father's previous assertion that he never heard any red flags raised about Dowless.
Dowless is a convicted felon who was hired by a consulting firm paid by the Harris campaign, and is at the center of allegations that absentee ballots were tampered with.
In testimony that turned emotional at times, John Harris, an assistant US Attorney of the Eastern District of North Carolina, told the board Wednesday that he "expressed my concerns" to his father the day after Mark Harris met with Dowless in 2017 -- before Dowless was hired by the campaign.
John Harris said it was his review of absentee voter data from 2016 that led him to think Dowless was a "shady character."
Emails shown at the hearing from John Harris to his father discuss Dowless' history of alleged fraud in the 2016 primary election, in which Dowless was working for a rival GOP candidate.
"This is not legal advice," John Harris wrote in one email, adding, "The key thing that I am fairly certain they do that is illegal is that they collect the completed absentee ballots and mail them at once. The way they pop up in batches at the board of elections makes me believe that."
John Harris stressed that he doesn't think his parents believed Dowless was breaking the law and wouldn't have retained Dowless had they known.
"I love my dad and I love my mom. OK?" John Harris said concluding his testimony, with his voice breaking. "I certainly have no vendetta against them. No family scores to settle, OK? I think that they made mistakes in this process and they certainly did things differently than I would have done them."
Mark Harris was brought to tears in the courtroom as his son spoke. The Republican candidate told the board on Thursday that he did not take his son's email as a "major warning" of danger ahead at the time, but merely viewed it as an overreaction.
"I knew John had never been to Bladen County. I knew John had never met other people down there," Harris said, adding, "I did not consider John's to be a warning that this was a problem and could be a real serious potential problem. Because I just believed he was overreacting in his comments."
When a board member seemed incredulous that Harris did not heed his son's warnings, Harris explained that while he viewed John as a very intelligent man, his son could at times be "a little judgmental" and operate with "a taste of arrogance."
"Obviously, I read these emails today in a very different, intellectual light than when I read them, when my 27-year-old son, who is a sharp attorney ... But I'm his dad and I know he's a little judgmental, and has a little taste of arrogance, and some other things," Harris said. "And I'm very proud of him and love him with all of my heart. But this was a father and a son."
He admitted that, in hindsight, it appears his son's suspicions about Dowless were correct.
Harris also twice said that Dowless told him during their first meeting in April 6, 2017, the illegal act of collecting ballots was not part of his program.
Harris said he did not ask any of the other Bladen County politicians who had vouched for Dowless' success if the operative collected ballots illegally. Harris also said he did not receive formal legal advice on the topic.