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A group of North Carolina voters is disputing Madison Cawthorn's candidacy over Jan. 6

 Madison Cawthorn is seen in December 2020, shortly after winning election to the U.S. House in North Carolina, at the Student Action Summit in West Palm Beach, Florida.
Gage Skidmore
Madison Cawthorn is seen in December 2020, shortly after winning election to the U.S. House in North Carolina, at the Student Action Summit in West Palm Beach, Florida.

A group of North Carolina voters told state officials on Monday they want U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn disqualified as a congressional candidate, citing his involvement in last January’s rally in Washington questioning the presidential election outcome before a Capitol riot later that day.

Cawthorn's office quickly condemned the candidacy challenge of the Republican, which was filed on behalf of 11 voters with the State Board of Elections, which oversees a process by which a candidate’s qualifications are scrutinized. The voters contend that Cawthorn, who formally filed as a candidate for the 13th District seat last month, can’t run because he fails to comply with an amendment in the U.S. Constitution ratified shortly after the Civil War.

The 1868 amendment says no one can serve in Congress “who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress . . . to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same.”

The written challenge says the events on Jan. 6, 2021 “amounted to an insurrection” and that Cawthorn’s speech at the rally supporting President Donald Trump, his other comments and information in published reports provide a “reasonable suspicion or belief” that he helped facilitate the insurrection and is thus disqualified.

“The importance of defending the bedrock constitutional principle that oath breakers who engage in insurrection cannot be trusted in future office is essential to maintain,” Ron Fein, legal director of Free Speech for People, a national election and campaign finance reform group backing the challenge election, told The Associated Press.

Fein said the Cawthorn challenge will be the first of many they intend to file against other members of Congress associated with the insurrection in the near future. Free Speech for People and the group Our Revolution announced last week that it would urge state election administrators to bar Trump and members of Congress from appearing on future ballots

The “leading national precedent” for such cases was created in 1869 by the North Carolina Supreme Court, which described the meaning of “engage” when it comes to a disqualifying act of insurrection or rebellion under the 14th Amendment, the filing says.

State law says Cawthorn has the burden to “show by a preponderance of the evidence” that he’s qualified to run.

In response to word of the challenge, Cawthorn spokesperson Luke Ball pointed out that “over 245,000 patriots from western North Carolina elected Congressman Cawthorn to serve them in Washington” — a reference to his November 2020 victory in the current 11th District.

Now “a dozen activists who are comically misinterpreting and twisting the 14th amendment for political gain will not distract him from that service,” Ball wrote in an email.

Cawthorn, 26, became the youngest member of Congress after his November 2020 election in the far-western 11th District and has become a social media favorite of Trump supporters. He plans to run in a new congressional district that appears friendlier to Republicans. He formally filed candidacy papers with the State Board of Elections last month, just before filing was suspended while redistricting lawsuits are pending.

The challenge asks the board to create a five-member panel from counties within the proposed 13th District to hear the challenge. The panel’s decision can be appealed state board and later to court.

The 11 voters, identified in additional paperwork filed with the board, are from four counties within the new 13th District, which stretches from the state's foothills east to parts of Charlotte.

Speaking at the “Save America Rally” on the morning of the riot, days after he was sworn in to Congress, Cawthorn said the “crowd has some fight in it.”

“The Democrats, with all the fraud they have done in this election, the Republicans hiding and not fighting, they are trying to silence your voice,” he added. “Make no mistake about it, they do not want you to be heard.”

Cawthorn voted against certifying Biden’s presidential victory, although later he signed a letter with other GOP members of Congress congratulating Biden. Cawthorn has said he had a constitutional duty to vote against him. He condemned the Capitol violence, but compared it to the summer 2020 protests over police brutality. Still, last summer Cawthorn warned North Carolinians of potential “bloodshed” over future elections he claims could “continue to be stolen,” and questioned whether Biden was “dutifully elected.”

The challengers also asked the board to let them question Cawthorn under oath in a deposition before the regional panel convenes, and to subpoena him and others to obtain documents.

“It’s easy to deny something on Twitter or in a speech to supporters,” Fein said. “But we look forward to questioning him under oath.”

Bob Orr, a former North Carolina Supreme Court justice who helped submit the challenge, said it’s not enough to resolve Cawthorn’s future through the outcome of the next election.

“While I understand the argument, ‘let the voters decide,’ the Constitution doesn’t say ‘let the voters decide if they are absolutely and irrevocably disqualified from holding office,’” said Orr, a former Republican-turned-independent who lives in Cawthorn’s current district. John Wallace, a longtime lawyer for Democratic causes in North Carolina, also filed the challenge.

One challenger, identified as Jay Walsh of Morganton, is a registered unaffiliated voter. He said in a news release that he took the same oath to defend the Constitution that members of Congress do while he was serving in the Navy, and accused some of them of “subverting the very democracy they swore to protect. Madison Cawthorn’s actions are damaging our country and eroding our freedoms.”

Copyright 2022 WFAE

Gary D. Robertson | Associated Press