North Carolina candidate says he has no knowledge of operative doing anything illegal

North Carolina Republican congressional candidate Mark Harris told WBTV on Friday that while he had hired Leslie McCrae Dowless, a political operative in the middle of an investigation into suspected absentee-ballot tampering, he was “absolutely not” aware of Dowless doing anything illegal.

Harris initially won the state’s 9th Congressional District election last month, beating Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes. But the State Board of Elections declined to certify the results after allegations of fraud began to circulate.

Investigators are probing whether some absentee ballots were altered by Dowless and a loosely connected group working with him, or whether ballots collected from voters were never turned in. Election officials are also looking into reports that early voting results were leaked.

Dowless has denied any wrongdoing to The Charlotte Observer and has not responded to repeated requests for comment from CNN.

Harris told the Charlotte, North Carolina, TV station that after he lost the 2016 9th District primary, including a significant margin of absentee ballots in Bladen County, a local Republican official recommended that he work with Dowless next time. The official characterized Dowless as “a good ol’ boy that knew Bladen County politics, that he did things right and that he knew election law … better than anyone he knew of,” Harris said in a video posted by the station.

The two met when Harris decided to run again in 2018, the candidate said, and Dowless explained his two-step program to help voters apply for and submit absentee ballots.

“He said he hired individuals that worked for him, who went out and canvassed door-to-door trying to encourage people to be involved and were they willing to fill out an absentee ballot request form. They would fill out the absentee ballot request form, and they would take it and would return it to the board of elections,” Harris said.

Then, since absentee ballots require two witness signatures, Dowless would send pairs of associates to “follow up with those people and offer their services … if they need any assistance with their ballot,” Harris said.

“I remember him saying specifically that they were not to take a ballot. They were not to touch a ballot,” Harris said. “In fact, he used the illustration that I still recall, that ‘I don’t care if it’s a 95-year-old woman in a wheelchair or a walker, you cannot take her ballot. You can walk her to the mailbox, and put the ballot in the mailbox and raise the flag, but you don’t take the ballot.’ “

When asked if he had any knowledge that Dowless might be doing anything illegal, Harris replied, “No, absolutely not.”

Harris said Dowless also had helped coordinate some speaking events and yard signs for him. Dowless worked for Red Dome Group, a GOP political consulting firm that Harris paid more than $400,000.

Harris said he was “caught by surprise” when the State Board of Elections did not certify the race three weeks later, because “nothing to my knowledge was ever said, ever reported, ever lodged, formally or informally.”

“That was the first we had heard of anything, and that was extremely frustrating,” he said. “I was in Washington at new member orientation at the second and final week when that came down.”

North Carolina Republicans said Tuesday that a new election would be necessary in the 9th District if investigators can verify a local newspaper report that early voting results in Bladen County were leaked before Election Day.

When asked if he felt attacked by his own party, Harris replied, “I certainly don’t feel the circling of the wagons around Harris the way I see the Democrats circling the wagons around McCready.”

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