By Brian Murphy, Jim Morrill, and Ely Portillo

After a stunning reversal by Republican Mark Harris, North Carolina election officials Thursday unanimously ordered a new election in the 9th Congressional District, which has gained national attention as the last unresolved House race for the 2018 election.

The state elections board's vote came after four days of testimony about what the board's staff called "a coordinated, unlawful, and substantially resourced absentee ballot scheme" in Bladen and Robeson counties. And it came less than an hour after a startling announcement by Harris, who had been fighting to have his apparent victory certified.

"I believe a new election should be called," Harris told the board, citing testimony he'd heard during the week. "It's become clear to me the public's confidence in the 9th District seat general election has been undermined to an extent that a new election is warranted."

Harris, 52, spent the morning answering questions about his relationship with Bladen County political operative McCrae Dowless, an elected official and convicted felon at the center of the controversy. But his attorney stopped the queries after Harris repeatedly denied telling anyone that emails between his son John and him would not be part of evidence. When Harris returned after a nearly two-hour break, he admitted that testimony was incorrect.

"Though I thought I was ready to undergo the rigors of this hearing and am getting stronger, clearly I am not and I struggled this morning with both recall and confusion," said Harris, who was hospitalized for a severe infection in January and said he suffered two strokes during that time. Harris returned to Charlotte on Wednesday night for treatment. "Neither I nor any of the leadership in my campaign were aware of or condone the improper activities that have been testified to."

Harris then left the witness stand and the hearing room. As he walked away from reporters, his wife Beth put her arm around his back and rubbed it. They disappeared down the hallway in the North Carolina State Bar building.

"That's a pretty good indication of where Dr. Harris understood things were going to go from there," said Marc Elias, attorney for Democrat Dan McCready, who planned hours and hours of cross-examination of Harris.

And with that a week's worth of drama surrounding the disputed race was all but over.

"Bombshell after bombshell this week, and this was nuclear," Michael Bitzer, a Catawba College political scientist, said in a phone interview.

In the months since the election, Harris -- who led the unofficial vote tally by 905 votes over McCready -- had maintained he was unaware of any absentee ballot fraud and insinuated there was a plot to deny him a seat in Congress. The state Republican Party and its officers also stood behind him and demanded he be certified the race winner.

At a Feb. 9 meeting of the N.C. GOP executive committee, Harris said, "The Democrats and liberal media have spared no expense disparaging my good name" and blamed "a liberal activist" on the Board of Elections for the whole episode. He called the absentee ballot-harvesting allegations "unsubstantiated slandering," according to a video of that meeting posted online.

At Thursday's hearing, Harris attorney David Freedman concluded "we agree that the actions that occurred in Bladen County likely affected the election."

The state board will set dates for a new election in the district with election officials outlining a possible May primary and October general election. A new state law requires a primary election, though legal challenges are expected. It is not certain whether Harris will run again. McCready already has raised more than $500,000 toward a new election.

"From the moment the first vote was stolen in North Carolina, from the moment the first voice was silenced by election fraud, the people have deserved justice," McCready said in a statement Thursday. "Today was a great step forward for democracy in North Carolina."

In a statement, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper said the board's vote "sends a strong message that election fraud must not be tolerated."

Harris, a Baptist preacher, took the stand Thursday morning, one day after his son, John Harris, a federal prosecutor in Raleigh. John Harris testified -- and emails showed -- that he warned his father about hiring Bladen County operative Dowless to run a mail-in absentee ballot program for his campaign. Harris repeatedly told the media he was told of no "red flags" about Dowless.

A member of the board pressed Harris on why he didn't heed warnings from his son.

"It was painfully clear to me that your son was saying, 'Daddy, don't mess with this guy," board member Jeff Carmon told Harris on the fourth day of a hearing. "This is beyond a red flag. That was your son with no axe to grind who wanted to make sure you were protected."

John Harris' dramatic testimony Wednesday, which brought his father to tears, included emails from April 2017 in which he warned the candidate that Dowless might have been engaged in illegal vote "harvesting," which other witnesses confirmed this week. John Harris even sent his father a copy of the law that bans vote harvesting.

"I didn't take it as a major warning -- 'Danger Ahead,'" Harris said Thursday. "He raised concerns (about Dowless). I did not consider John's (emails) to be a warning. I thought he was overreacting."

On the stand, Harris said he loves his son but, "I know he's a little judgmental, and has a little taste of arrogance."

Freedman, Harris' attorney, said his son's testimony was a "tipping point" for Harris.

"The tipping point was his son told him, tried to warn him years ago about trusting too much. His son is now telling him this is tainted. His son is now telling him from the witness stand, it's time for bipartisan support," Freedman said. "He decided maybe he should listen to his son."

The Harris campaign was on defense from the state of the hearing Monday -- when the state produced witnesses that explained that various parts of Dowless' mail-in absentee ballot program were illegal.

Thursday started with more criticism of Harris' campaign for not producing documents that the board had requested.


Records turned over

Elections officials announced the campaign had just turned over more than 800 pages of documents Wednesday night, long after the deadline. Harris attorney John Branch took responsibility for the late arrival. But Elias, attorney for McCready, expressed surprise about emails and other documents that had "miraculously appeared."

"I feel frankly that a game of Three-Card Monte is going on," he told the board.

Harris described meeting Dowless through the intercession of a mutual friend, former judge Marion Warren. Harris knew that Dowless had helped Todd Johnson win almost all absentee votes in the 2016 GOP congressional primary.

In a 2017 email to Warren, one of the documents turned over Wednesday night, Harris said he wanted to meet "the guy whose absentee ballot project for Johnson could have put me in the US House this term had I known and had he been helping us."

Harris said he met with Dowless and other local voters April 6, 2017, in Bladen County. When John Harris expressed concerns a day later, after having done an analysis of 2016 absentee votes, Harris recalled saying, "John, it all comes down to relationships. ..."

He said he weighed his son's concerns against what he'd seen in Bladen and the description of his program he'd heard from Dowless.

"The relationships I felt was what caused him (Dowless) to be successful," he said. "I did have a comfort level at that point."

Harris said he took Dowless' word about the legality of his operation. He said he also asked his main consultant, Andy Yates, to weigh in.

Yates testified over two days this week that Dowless' hiring was a "done deal" by the time he came on board in the summer of 2017. He also testified that for the most part he paid Dowless not on invoices but by verbal requests. Elections officials say Yates' company, Red Dome Group, paid Dowless a total of $131,000 during the campaign.

In answer to questions, Harris said he didn't know about the lack of oversight until this week.

"I did not know it was simply word of mouth," he told the board. "I was not keeping up with the checks and the money being spent down there until I saw your figures here."

Harris was asked about a check he wrote Dowless in May 2017 made payable to "Patriots for Progress," a political action committee. Kim Westbrook Strach, executive director of the board, asked him if he knew it was illegal for campaigns to coordinate with PACs set up for independent spending. He said he did not.

Carmon, the board member and a Democrat, concluded his questions to Harris with one more: "(Did) you just want to win?"

(c)2019 The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.)