UPDATE: State Board orders new 9th congressional district election after candidate Harris concedes

Mark Harris, Republican candidate in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional race, prepares to testify during the fourth day of a public evidentiary hearing on the 9th Congressional District voting irregularities investigation. (Photo by Travis Long/Raleigh News and Observer)

Republican congressional candidate Mark Harris called Thursday for a new election in the 9th district after nearly four days of testimony about his hired political operative committing absentee ballot fraud in Bladen and Robeson counties.

“Through the testimony I’ve listened to in the past three days, I believe a new election should be called,” he said. The entire room let out a collective gasp. “It’s become clear to me that the public’s confidence in the 9th district’s seat general election has been undermined to an extent that a new election is warranted.”

The five-member State Board of Elections — made up of three Democrats and two Republicans — voted unanimously a short time later to order new elections for the remaining uncertified races on the ballot, including the 9th congressional race.

Harris’ sudden and unexpected change of heart came a day after his son, John Harris, testified that his father ignored multiple warnings from him in phone calls and emails about political operative McCrae Dowless’ illegal tactics before hiring him. The 29-year-old assistant U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina had previously provided the State Board with emails showing exchanges between him and his parents in which he told them he was fairly certain Dowless was collecting absentee ballots from voters, a felony.

The Harris campaign had never turned those emails over to the State Board until about 15 minutes before the younger Harris testified Wednesday. The campaign also turned over other communications from Harris about Dowless later that night.

The State Board has been holding an evidentiary hearing this week to decide whether to certify the 9th congressional race or call for a new election because of alleged absentee ballot fraud. Harris won the race over Democratic candidate Dan McCready by 905 votes. It is the last congressional race in the nation to not be certified.

Harris campaign attorney John Branch apologized to the State Board on Thursday morning for the late production of documents, and said he had a narrow interpretation of the subpoena they were under. Marc Elias, who represents McCready, insinuated that the Harris campaign misclassified certain employees as contractors to avoid complying with the subpoena and said it wasn’t the first time they were involved in questionable practices.

The State Board continued on with Harris’ testimony, and he said he never took his son’s warnings seriously. He was asked under oath if he knew the emails between him and his son would be admitted as evidence, and he said he did.

He was asked no less than three times by two different attorneys whether he’d had any conversations with anyone about believing the emails would not be part of the evidence this week.

“I don’t recall specifically saying that, I’m not denying that I could have said that,” he answered once.

When Elias asked him the question twice, noting the last time that he wanted to give Harris one more chance to answer it, he still denied such communication.

“I cannot imagine and cannot remember with all the information over the last four days that I would have made a statement that the emails John and I had would not be part of this,” Harris responded.

After a lunch break, Harris took the stand and said he wanted to make a statement to the State Board.

“It’s been brought to my attention that I talked to my son, my younger son Matthew who I referenced earlier, two nights ago about the fact that I did not think that John’s emails would be brought to this hearing,” he said. “Obviously I was incorrect in my recollection and I wholeheartedly apologize to this Board. On Jan. 18, I went to the hospital. After battling what we thought was bronchitis, I developed a severe infection that actually caused me to become septic and in the process of that illness, I experienced two strokes from which I am still recovering. Though I thought I was ready to undergo the rigors of this hearing, and am getting stronger, I clearly am not and I struggled this morning to both recall and confusion. Neither I nor any of my campaign were aware of or condoned the improper activities that have been testified to in this hearing.”

Harris was then excused from the stand and then left the room without answering questions from reporters outside.

This is a breaking news story and will be updated throughout the day.

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