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Mark Harris attends a debate between the four top-polling Republican candidates in North Carolina for the U.S. Senate, at ...

In undecided N.C. race, GOP candidate testifies that operative said he wouldn’t collect ballots

RALEIGH, N.C. — The Republican in the country’s last undecided congressional election testified Thursday that a political operative now accused of ballot fraud assured him “again and again” that he wouldn’t collect absentee ballots in violation of state law.

GOP congressional candidate Mark Harris described during a special state elections board hearing how he accepted the word of political operative Leslie McCrae Dowless that he was able to get results for candidates because of his relationships in rural Bladen County.

Harris said he met with Dowless in person before hiring him and came away thinking the operative used a labor-intensive process to convince people to request and send mail-in ballots. He said Dowless assured him his operatives would never touch the completed absentee ballots.

“I’ll never forget. He said it again and again. He said: We do not take the ballot,” Harris testified. He was “convinced that it all comes down to relationships.”

Harris said after a single meeting he believed Dowless and local GOP political leaders that Dowless’ methods were legal. That was despite repeated warnings from his son that data showed the operative was likely crossing legal lines and exposing ballots to potential manipulation. Harris said he never investigated further and never checked whether the results Dowless claimed to be delivering were real.

A Harris text message revealed Thursday from March 2017 indicated he wanted a local political ally to introduce him to Dowless because had Dowless worked on Harris’ unsuccessful 2016 primary campaign it “could have put me in the US House this term, had I known, and he had been helping us.”

Lawyers for Harris have argued in legal briefs that the board should certify his November victory and send him to Washington. Democrat Dan McCready’s lawyers contend the race was tainted and a new election should be ordered.

McCready trailed Harris by 905 votes out of about 280,000 cast in November’s election, but then allegations surfaced that in the eastern corner of the 9th congressional district, Dowless was manipulating mail-in ballots.

North Carolina’s elections director said this week that Dowless conducted an illegal and well-funded ballot-harvesting operation during the 2018 election cycle while working for Harris. Dowless’ workers in rural Bladen County testified 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.

In testimony Wednesday, the candidate’s son, John Harris, said he’d warned his father about Dowless’ operation since mid-2016.

John Harris said his warnings were overridden because local Republican figures recommended Dowless to Mark Harris, who was gearing up for a primary rematch against incumbent GOP U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger. Mark Harris and his wife met Dowless in April 2017, when Dowless insisted his method for maximizing mail-in vote results was legal and grounded in local relationships, John Harris said Wednesday.

Local politicians knew and had used Dowless since at least 2010, and the community had even voted him to a local soil and water conservation board, Harris’ lawyer, David Freedman, said. Harris largely went along with those local recommendations, the attorney said.

“I think he’s much too trusting,” Freedman said.

Mark Harris previously told The Associated Press he sought out and hired Dowless because he delivered votes, including for a Republican rival in the 2016 GOP primary. Harris said he discussed with an attorney after that primary whether to challenge Dowless’ incredible results for a GOP rival with mail-in ballots in Bladen County. Dowless’ methods in the 2016 general election were referred to federal prosecutors, who took no action.