Updated at 5:16 p.m. ET
After months of insisting that he knew of no illegal activity being done on behalf of his campaign, Republican Mark Harris, who leads the race for North Carolina's 9th Congressional District, called Thursday for the State Board of Elections to hold a new election.
Shortly afterward, the bipartisan state board voted unanimously to redo the only congressional race left from the 2018 midterm elections that remains undecided.
"Through the testimony I've listened to over the past three days, I believe a new election should be called. It's become clear to me that the public's confidence in the 9th District seat general election has been undermined to an extent that a new election is warranted," said Harris.
It was a dramatic and humbling reversal for Harris, a pastor who until now had insisted that the elections board certify his 905-vote lead over Democrat Dan McCready in the unofficial tally so that he could take a seat in Congress.
Four days of hearings had left that position increasingly untenable as witnesses detailed how an operative hired by Harris illegally handled absentee ballots, a felony in North Carolina. One witness said she filled in unmarked sections of ballots. Harris' own son testified on Wednesday that he had warned his father that the operative's tactics were likely illegal.
An email first released to the public on Thursday shows that Harris requested a meeting with the operative, McCrae Dowless, in March 2017 after losing a primary election in which one of his opponents had hired Dowless.
The disclosure by the Harris campaign frustrated investigators, who were presented with the evidence only on Wednesday, despite a subpoena from the North Carolina State Board of Elections for the relevant documents months ago.
A "shady character"
In December, the board declined to certify the results of the election. Instead it voted to open an investigation into an absentee ballot scheme that investigators have now been unspooling for months. Election board staff said that the investigation will continue even as preparations are made for a new race.
The investigation focuses on Dowless, who was hired by Harris to run get-out-the-vote efforts in Bladen and Robeson counties. Dowless was also investigated in 2016 for his tactics, which a number of witnesses have testified included illegally collecting absentee ballots and filling out some of those ballots.
Harris has said publicly since the investigation began in December that he was unaware of any illegal acts that may have been done on behalf of his campaign. He reiterated that in his testimony Thursday.
"He said we do not take the ballot," Harris said, describing what Dowless told him. " 'I don't care if it's a 95-year-old woman in a wheelchair. We do not take the ballots.' "
The email produced by the attorney representing Harris' campaign showed Harris reaching out to former judge Marion Warren about procuring Dowless' help. Dowless worked for another candidate, Todd Johnson, who nearly swept Bladen County's absentee ballot totals in 2016, and Harris refers to that victory in his email.
"On the other issue of your gracious offer to meet me in Bladen County and spend a day connecting me to the 'key people' that can help me carry that part of the county in a future US House NC-9 race," Harris wrote to Warren on March 8, 2017. "You know the political and financial connections better than anyone else I would know, including the guy whose absentee ballot project for Johnson could have put me in the US House this term, had I known, and he had been helping us."
But Harris' son, John Harris, testified Wednesday that he warned his father that he thought Dowless was a "shady character" who likely engaged in illegal practices as part of his operation.
John Harris says he reviewed the absentee ballot results of the 2016 race and concluded that Dowless was using illegal tactics to help Johnson. During Wednesday's hearing, John Harris said he warned his father about this but that Mark Harris still hired Dowless.
Mark Harris was pressed about those warnings Thursday.
"It was painfully clear that he was saying, 'Daddy, don't mess with this guy,' " said elections board member Jeff Carmon. "That was your son, with no ax to grind, that wanted to make sure you were protected."
Mark Harris said he never raised his son's concerns with Dowless.
He also said that he disregarded the warnings because his son was only 27 years old and had never been to Bladen County, whereas he had sat down with Dowless and had heard his guarantees that he wasn't mishandling ballots.
New election details
The elections board will hold a public hearing soon to decide the timing of the new election.
McCready, the Democrat who ran against Harris, said the decision Thursday was "a great step forward for democracy in North Carolina."
"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 tweeted.
The new race won't be a rerun of last November's contest. There will be primary elections to determine each party's candidates and then a new general election, in accordance with North Carolina law.
A spokesperson for the State Board of Elections said the board will likely schedule the election to coincide with the special election needed to fill the vacancy of Rep. Walter Jones, who died this month.
North Carolina's governor, Democrat Roy Cooper, praised the board's decision to call a new election.
"People must have confidence that their vote matters and this action sends a strong message that election fraud must not be tolerated," said Cooper.
A previous version of this story misspelled McCrae Dowless' first name as McRae. Also, a previous version referred to Marion Warren as a judge. He was actually a former judge at the time Mark Harris reached out to him.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
A dramatic moment in a hearing room in Raleigh, N.C., today
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MARK HARRIS: Through the testimony I've listened to over the past three days, I believe a new election should be called. It's become clear to me that the public's confidence in the 9th District seat general election has been undermined to an extent that a new election is warranted.
CORNISH: That was Republican Mark Harris calling for a new election in the only unresolved race of the 2018 midterms. Shortly after, he said that state election officials voted to do over the entire contest in the state's 9th Congressional District. NPR reporter Miles Parks was in that hearing room. He joins us now. And, Miles, what more have you learned about what happened today?
MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Well, it was a pretty amazing scene, Audie. Basically we got a resolution to something that we've been waiting for for months. Today was the day where Mark Harris was set to take the stand in this hearing that's been going on all week. And we were going to hear about what he knew about this absentee ballot scheme that investigators have been laying out since Monday. Basically, the scheme was orchestrated by a political operative named McCrae Dowless who was hired by Harris. And a number of witnesses have testified that they were being paid by Dowless to collect ballots. Somebody even testified that they were filling in those ballots. Both of those things are illegal in North Carolina.
So it became clearer and clearer over the past few days that these election results in the 9th District were tainted. And you heard Harris in that clip of tape right there. So at the end of the day, we had a bipartisan vote - a unanimous vote, 5-0, to hold a new election in the 9th Congressional District in North Carolina, which that unanimous vote, obviously, pretty amazing considering how election security has become such a partisan issue.
CORNISH: For months, Mark Harris said that he did nothing wrong, right? And state Republicans kept arguing that the number of votes in dispute wouldn't have changed the outcome of the race. Why the sudden change of heart?
PARKS: Right. So I think it really comes down to yesterday's testimony from John Harris who's Mark Harris's son. He's an assistant U.S. attorney in North Carolina, and he gave a very emotional, hours-long testimony where he laid out how he warned his father about McCrae Dowless's absentee ballot scheme. Basically, he did some pretty intense data analysis on the 2016 election results in which Dowless was working. And he came to the conclusion that he thought Dowless was doing illegal tactics to get the results that he was getting. He told his father that. And his father did not heed his warnings, according to his testimony. That really cuts at the heart of what Mark Harris has been saying for months that he knew nothing about McCrae Dowless, that nobody had warned him and that he was completely blindsided by these allegations.
CORNISH: Now that a new election has been called, what happens next?
PARKS: That is still being determined at this point. North Carolina passed a law a few months ago that said new primary elections have to be held if a new general election is going to be held in a statewide race. So we're going to be having a new primary. And it's unclear at this point whether Mark Harris is going to run and whether he can win the support of state Republicans in a Republican primary for this seat. Obviously, this is a lot of baggage regardless of whether he knew about what was going on there. If he didn't know, that's obviously not a great look as well in terms of somebody who his campaign was paying using tactics like this.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Miles Parks in Raleigh. Miles, thank you.
PARKS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.