Though the broad outlines of Dowless’s scheme were clear when the hearing began, the four days of testimony still produced a series of shocking new developments.
“Everyone in Bladen County is related,” one poll worker said on the stand, and the hearing proved to be a family affair. Some of the most dramatic testimony came from children—Dowless’s former stepdaughter Lisa Britt, and Harris’s son John, an assistant U.S. attorney in Raleigh.
Dowless himself refused to testify, but Britt—whose mother was previously married to Dowless—described the workings of his operation during Monday’s hearing, including her own role in breaking the law.
“I don’t want to get him in trouble. I don’t want to get anyone in trouble,” Britt said. “Mr. Dowless has been a father figure to me for 30 years. There’s certain things you would place trust in. He’s not going to put you out here to do something illegal.”
Britt also testified that Dowless had tried to obstruct the state-board investigation, encouraging her not to tell the truth about his operation both to the press and then at the hearing.
Next up was Andy Yates, a political consultant who worked for Harris and through whose company Dowless was paid. Yates testified that he had been unaware of any wrongdoing by Dowless, but also said that though he had paid Dowless through his company, Harris had decided to employ Dowless before Yates was hired, and that Harris and Dowless had been in frequent, direct contact.
All of this turned out to be a warm-up for even more stunning testimony. On Wednesday, the board heard from John Harris, Mark Harris’s son. John Harris testified that he first became concerned about irregularities in Bladen County during the 2016 GOP primary for the same seat, which Harris lost to then-Representative Robert Pittenger. Poring over election results, John Harris noticed a peculiar pattern of absentee ballots in favor of a third candidate, who happened to be employing Dowless.
Ahead of the 2018 election cycle, Mark Harris met with Dowless to talk to him about running. As John Harris recounted, he warned his father that Dowless, whom he called a “shady character,” might be breaking the law, and emailed his father the text of the state law that prohibits ballot harvesting. But Mark Harris decided to hire Dowless anyway. John Harris also testified that all members of the Harris campaign had been paid through Yates’s company in order to create political distance. On the stand, John Harris expressed regret that he hadn’t pushed his father harder, and said he concluded that his father sincerely believed Dowless’s assurances that he wasn’t breaking the law.
“I love my dad and I love my mom. I certainly have no vendetta against them," John Harris said, as his father, seated in the hearing room, cried. “I think they made mistakes in this process, and they certainly did things differently than I would have done them.”