N.C. pastor agrees to new vote for U.S. House seat

EDITOR'S NOTE: The prayer requests from Mark Harris in paragraphs 21-22 were added after this story was originally posted.

RALEIGH, N.C. (BP) -- Pro-family groups in North Carolina are calling for prayer after state officials ordered a new election in the 9th Congressional District, where initial results appeared to send former pastor Mark Harris to Congress but allegations of ballot fraud have persisted since shortly after Election Day.

Congressional candidate Mark Harris fought back tears as his son John told the North Carolina Board of Elections he warned his father about the potentially illegal tactics of a campaign operative.
Screen capture from CNN
In a Feb. 21 reversal that drew what media reports called audible gasps at a hearing before the North Carolina Board of Elections, Harris said "the public's confidence in the 9th District seat general election has been undermined to an extent that a new election is warranted." Less than an hour later, the bipartisan board voted 5-0 to order a new election following four days of testimony that alleged Harris campaign workers may have illegally filled out, collected and signed absentee ballots.

The Board of Elections staff alleged Harris benefitted from "a coordinated, unlawful and substantially resourced absentee ballot scheme" in North Carolina's Bladen and Robeson counties, according to the Raleigh News & Observer.

Harris has denied he knew any such scheme was occurring. He has not indicated whether he will run in the new election amid health concerns and the ballot fraud controversy.

Harris pastored First Baptist Church in Charlotte, N.C., until 2017, when he resigned to run for Congress. He was president of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina from 2011-2013 and served on the 2016 Southern Baptist Convention Resolutions Committee.

The North Carolina Values Coalition, a pro-family group led by Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission trustee Tami Fitzgerald, said in a release, "We encourage our coalition members to keep Mark Harris in your prayers as he continues to recover from the infection and illness that has kept him sidelined since late December. He is still receiving daily treatments, and the rigors of the hearing this week were extremely difficult on him and his family."

Harris, 52, was hospitalized for a severe infection in January and suffered two strokes around the same time, according to media reports.

The Coalition added, "We offer Mark and Beth Harris our condolences, our continued support, and our prayers. We appreciate their courage and leadership in running for office so they can serve the public."

Unofficial election results from November's general election showed Harris, a Republican, defeating Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes out of nearly 283,000 cast. However, the State Board of Elections refused to certify the results amid claims of irregularities regarding absentee ballots.

Previously, Harris had asked a judge to require certification of the results, claiming, "We don't believe the number of ballots in question would change the outcome of this election."

Harris changed his view, however, following testimony to the elections board this week by state investigators and Harris' son John.

John Harris testified -- and produced email to corroborate his testimony -- that he warned his father of "red flags" concerning tactics employed by McCrae Dowless, a political operative Harris hired to help him win absentee ballots. Dowless may have engaged previously in illegal vote "harvesting," John Harris warned his father. The younger Harris also sent his father a copy of the law banning such activity.

His son's testimony left Mark Harris in tears, according to video of the hearing. Mark Harris testified later he believed his son was "overreacting" when he issued the warning about Dowless.

Mark Harris testified before the board all morning Feb. 21 but admitted after a lunch break parts of his testimony had been incorrect, citing medical issues that affected his recall.

"Though I thought I was ready to undergo the rigors of this hearing and am getting stronger, clearly I am not and I struggled this morning with both recall and confusion," said Harris according to the News & Observer. "Neither I nor any of the leadership in my campaign were aware of or condone the improper activities that have been testified to."

One of Harris's attorneys told the Board of Elections, "We agree that the actions that occurred in Bladen County likely affected the election," the News & Observer reported. Another Harris attorney admitted not turning over documents requested by the board until long after the deadline.

Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League of North Carolina, said he has prayed Psalm 119:161-168 as Harris' situation weighed "heavily on [his] heart." Creech is not, he told Baptist Press, "making any judgment as to the particulars" of allegations in the 9th District.

"Falsehood in any form should be detestable to the believer," Creech said in an email. "Whether for the ancients or moderns, lying has always been the modus operandi of politics. Whether regenerate or unregenerate, the temptation in the political arena to spin, to equivocate, to palter is ever present. Moreover, deceit is more than the way one communicates, but it is in essence, anything in opposition to the God of truth. Anything against God's way or His order is to be detested."

As expressed in Psalm 119, believers have "reason to praise God, to experience God's peace and ultimately to look to God for His salvation," Creech said, even amid America's political turmoil.

The Board of Elections will reconvene to set dates for a new election. Officials have said a primary is possible in May and a general election in October. Until then, the 9th District will not have representation in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Harris told BP he needs prayer for his health and for wisdom.

"It has been a tough week, and we are continuing to seek God's guidance in moving forward," Harris said via text message. "The greatest prayer needs we have are for strength to continue increasing from the serious health situation over the last five weeks, and wisdom concerning moving forward in this new election."

David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists' concerns nationally and globally.
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