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'I prayed on it' | Mark Harris testifies in 9th District hearing

Republican Mark Harris testified Thursday morning about what he knew about an absentee ballot operation during last November's 9th District congressional race.

RALEIGH, N.C. — Republican Mark Harris testified Thursday morning about what he knew about an absentee ballot operation during last November's 9th District congressional race. A day earlier, his son John took the stand. 

Harris was the apparent winner of North Carolina's 9th District race, but the results were never certified because of allegations of absentee ballot tampering.

In the batch of affidavits released back in December, stated some registered voters alleged they handed their signed but otherwise blank mail-in absentee ballot directly to McCrae Dowless, who had been hired by the chief strategist for Harris’ campaign. It’s illegal for anyone other than a close relative or guardian to take a person’s ballot.

Mark Harris told the Board of Elections that he had first met Dowless at Ray Britt's furniture store on April 6. Harris said he was aware of Dowless previous work with Todd Johnson, in which Johnson won his campaign primarily based on absentee ballots.  

The election board asked if Harris had ever asked Dowless about that election and its results. Harris said he couldn't recall. 

In some of his first encounters with Dowless, Harris had asked him, 'what makes you so special and what do you do?' And he explained to me he had a 'get out the vote' program and an absentee ballot program."   

Harris clarified that Dowless had assured him that his absentee ballot program followed protocol. Harris said Dowless had told him the program was two-fold: 

1. Hand out the ballots to voters  

2. Go back to the homes and ensure the ballots are mailed in that day

Harris said phase two was most important because it ensures the voters actually mail in their ballots.  

"Dowless told me 'we do not collect the ballots," Harris said. "He said, and I'll never forget, he said again and again, 'do not take the ballot. I don't care if it's a 95-year-old woman in a wheelchair or on a walker, do not take the ballot." 

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During the election board hearing, Harris said he had called his son John Harris for legal advice because he was not familiar with absentee ballots.

Harris was questioned about an email exchange with his son John after concerns were raised about the legality of McCrae's program. 

John told his father the only thing that raised a red flag was if workers were collecting ballots for voters, which is a felony.  

Harris said he believed the relationships Dowless had would convince voters to fill out and send in absentee ballots for him.

The election board asked Harris if he had ever considered hiring lawyers to look over Dowless' campaign promises. Harris said he had trusted the recommendations made to him about Dowless. 

"I was comfortable enough with the recommendations of the individuals" to bring Dowless on board the campaign," Harris said. 

In an email exchange, Harris' son had told his father, "make sure that you're comfortable with what you're being presented and what risks may come." Harris said John was a bit prophetic in his statement that day.

Mark Harris said he dismissed his son John's advice because John was living in Washington DC and had never had boots on the ground in Bladen County.

Harris testified that he had spent a couple of weeks after meeting Dowless to "pray on it" and decided he wanted to "at least engage Dowless and tie him into our campaign if we decided to launch. We were still in the conversation stage, quite frankly."   

Harris has also asked Andy Yates, director of the Red Dome group, a consulting firm hired by Mark Harris' campaign, to meet with him to make sure everything looked good. 

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He said he wanted Yates to meet independently with McCrae Dowless and learn about his program but did not share his son's concerns Dowless could be collecting ballots. 

"Had Andy come back to me and said, 'he's telling me he's collecting ballots,' Andy would have said we can't do this," Harris said of hiring Dowless. 

Yates was in charge of paying Dowless but denied knowledge of any wrongdoing by Dowless during the election. 

This story will be updated continually. Stick with WCNC.com and NBC Charlotte for the latest in the 9th District evidentiary hearing and investigation.

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