North Carolina’s state board of elections has spent the week hearing testimony in an investigation of suspected absentee ballot fraud that prevented the board from certifying what had appeared to be a narrow 2018 election victory for Religious Right candidate Mark Harris in North Carolina’s ninth congressional district. Late on Thursday the board voted to hold a new election to fill the seat.
One dramatic high point of the hearings came on Wednesday, when Harris’s son John testified that he had warned his father against hiring the campaign operative at the center of the fraud allegations. Another came on Thursday, when Harris eventually reversed his previous efforts to be seated in Congress and said he believed a new election should be held. WBTV’s Nick Ochsner live-tweeted the proceedings.
Harris is a pastor and a Religious Right favorite who was supported by Karen Pence, “historian” David Barton, Christian nationalist David Lane, and Trump-promoting “prophet” Lance Wallnau, among others.
John Harris testified that he had repeatedly warned his parents that Bladen County political operative McCrae Dowless was a “shady character.” When Mark Harris took the stand on Thursday, and was asked how to reconcile his son’s testimony with his previous public statements that no one warned him about Dowless, Harris said “I did not believe John’s emails to be a warning.” Responded one board member, “It’s painfully clear your son meant, ‘Daddy, don’t mess with this guy.’”
In fact, the very reason his son was concerned about Dowless—the consultant’s involvement in dubious primary election results in 2016, when Harris narrowly lost a challenge to incumbent Rep. Robert Pittenger—is the reason Harris was so intent on hiring him for his 2018 rematch. He wanted to win and thought Dowless could deliver.
As the Washington Post reported last year, “One person said Harris’s decision to hire Dowless stemmed partly from his realization that he would have defeated Rep. Robert Pittenger” in 2016 if he had won the mail-in vote in Bladen County by as large a margin as a different challenger—one who had hired Dowless—did.
The improbable 2016 primary returns—the incumbent congressman got just one mail-in vote from the county, Harris got four, and the candidate who hired Dowless got 221—was a red flag to Harris’s son that Dowless was not just encouraging people to request and use mail-in ballots, but was illegally collecting them. That is what Dowless is charged with doing on Harris’s behalf last year—perhaps completing empty ballots or neglecting to return those marked for another candidate. Dowless has denied breaking the law, but state investigators said on Monday they had uncovered evidence of “a coordinated, unlawful and substantially resourced absentee ballot scheme operated during the 2018 general election in Bladen and Robeson counties.” Harris denied knowing about any wrongdoing.
Last November, when the state election board decided not to certify the election, Harris had already been in D.C. taking part in events for newly elected members of Congress. In January, as other members of the 2018 class were being sworn in, Harris asked a court to require that the board certify him as the winner, saying “there should be no reason to doubt the legitimacy of the outcome.” On Thursday, he abandoned that position.
Harris, a pastor affiliated with the Family Research Council, became known in politics as an anti-LGBTQ activist. He was an ally of the anti-LGBTQ Behnam brothers in opposing a Charlotte nondiscrimination law. Harris had also helped organize and finance the 2012 Amendment One campaign to place a ban on same-sex couples marrying into the state constitution. He made an unsuccessful run for the U.S. Senate but he was defeated in the 2014 primary.
When Harris took on Pittenger for the second time in 2018, he portrayed the primary as a battle for “the heart and soul of the Republican Party.” The Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins celebrated Harris’s primary upset—now also tainted. The Christian Broadcasting Network reported that Christian nationalist David Lane was among Harris’s “staunchest supporters.”
“There is no realm that God has made an exception for that He doesn’t intend for believers to be salt and light,” Harris told the Christian Broadcasting Network after his primary win. “Every arena God expects us to be engaged.”
Karen Pence, wife of Vice President Mike Pence, traveled to North Carolina to campaign for Harris last October as part of a “Women for Mark Harris” bus tour; also appearing was Debbie Meadows, wife of Freedom Caucus chair Rep. Mark Meadows. At that event, Elizabeth Johnston, a.k.a. “Activist Mommy,” said Harris had assured her that he would end abortion, “No exceptions.” Academic-turned-Religious Right activist Carol Swain said Harris was among the “godly” men and women answering God’s call to service in office. Christian TV host Donica Hudson declared, “It is a God mission that we are on.”