As Nation Watches, Elections Board Raises Curtain on Fraud Case
On Tuesday, March 26, N.C. Board of Elections Chair Bob Cordle ’63 and key board staff spoke publicly for the first time about what happened behind the scenes as they uncovered the 9th Congressional District election scandal and declared a new election. Davidson College Political Science Professor Susan Roberts and Visiting Professor Michael Bitzer moderated the discussion and audience questions. Video of the panel discussion below.
As a trial lawyer, Bob Cordle never wanted to pit children against their parents.
As the new chairman of the North Carolina Board of Elections, Cordle '63, thought about that recently when he watched a family schism publicly unfold during a hearing about the state's contested 9th Congressional District race.
At the hearing, witnesses said they were paid to collect absentee ballots in rural Bladen County before the November 2018 election and give them to an operative working for Republican Mark Harris. Harris won the seat by a tiny 905-vote margin, but the elections board refused to certify the race because of fraud allegations.
John Harris, the candidate's son, testified that he'd warned his father not to hire the operative, McCrae Dowless, who had a fraud conviction and shady reputation. In interviews before the hearing, Mark Harris had repeatedly denied knowing about the operative's past or methods or receiving any warnings about him.
Originally the election staff considered having Mark Harris, a Baptist minister, testify before his son, who is a federal prosecutor. But Cordle, knowing that John Harris's testimony could contradict Mark Harris's, thought the father should hear what the son had to say. Staff case presenters opted to put the son on the stand first.
The next day, Mark Harris took the stand and maintained that he didn't know Dowless was doing anything illegal. After Harris was questioned about the son's warning emails, his attorney abruptly stopped the hearing and asked for a recess. A short time later, Harris returned to the stand, said some of his testimony was incorrect and opted out of the hearing. In a stunning turn, Harris said there should be a new election and later dropped out of the race.
"I did that because I didn't think it was a good thing to ambush Dr. Harris by having him testify before his son -- that's not how you treat parents and children," Cordle said. "It's never good to deal with families by having them ambush each other. Juries don't like it and I didn't think the people of North Carolina would like it."
Dowless was later indicted on felony conspiracy charges and a criminal investigation continues.
Cordle will come to Davidson College Tuesday, March 26, to talk about the race, which drew national attention and orders for new primary and general elections scheduled for later this year. Democrat Dan McCready, who initially conceded to Mark Harris, will face the winner of a crowded Republican primary.
Cordle will join Kim Westbrook Strach, executive director of the state Board of Elections, and board attorney Josh Lawson, who developed and presented the case. Davidson College Political Science Professor Susan Roberts and Visiting Professor Michael Bitzer will moderate: "What Really Happened at the 9th District Election?" The event is scheduled for 11 a.m. in Tyler-Tallman Hall, Sloan Music Center.
"I don't think I've ever seen a hearing like that or a result like that," Cordle said. "It started on a dramatic note and ended on one."
It's Cordle's second stint on the elections board; his previous term ended in 2013. In December, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper tapped Cordle, a Democrat, to serve again. "Robert Cordle has a proven record of service...putting aside party affiliation to hold elected leaders responsible," Cooper said at the time.
In January, a new five-member board unanimously selected Cordle to serve as the chair, just weeks before the 9th District Hearing. It's a good choice, said Charlotte attorney and longtime colleague Jon Buchan.
"As a trial lawyer Bob was a fearless, fact-focused bulldog of an advocate," Buchan said. "He has always been tough, smart and fair. He brings to the Board of Elections his passion for sifting through evidence and finding the truth."
Cordle never ran for public office but became interested in politics as a student at Davidson College. His interest in government grew when he worked as an intern in North Carolina Governor Terry Sanford's administration.
He saw combat as an Army military intelligence officer during the Vietnam war, and survived a helicopter crash there. After graduating from New York University Law School, he practiced nearly 50 years before his retirement.
Along the way, he worked on several political campaigns, including United States Senate and Congressional bids by his friend D.G. Martin '62.
As an elections board member, he can't serve in political campaigns or run for office.
Cordle said his new role has kept him busy. Besides the 9th District election, the board is also investigating allegations of fraud in several other races from 2018.
"It's been a lot of work, and it's still not done," he said.
Leadership comes naturally to Cordle. At Davidson College, he captained the track team and co-captained the football team. More recently he served two terms as an Alumni Association Trustee and won the 2018 Alumni Service Award to mark his continuing service and loyalty.
"I think Davidson shapes everyone who goes there," he said. "I had unbelievable professors with great moral codes. That's got to rub off on you."
- March 25, 2019