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Once again, NC voters challenge Madison Cawthorn's candidacy for Congress over Jan. 6 ties

 U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn speaking with attendees at the 2021 AmericaFest at the Phoenix Convention Center in Phoenix.
Gage Skidmore
U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn speaking with attendees at the 2021 AmericaFest at the Phoenix Convention Center in Phoenix.

An effort to block this year's candidacy of U.S. Rep Madison Cawthorn was revived Wednesday by two new voter challenges, which question his qualifications in light of a federal constitutional prohibition against insurrectionists serving in office.

The new paperwork officially seeking Cawthorn's disqualification, presented by two voters in North Carolina's far-western 11th Congressional District, was anticipated. The first-term Republican filed to run in the 11th District earlier this week.

About a dozen voters had previously asked that election officials investigate Cawthorn after he had filed in December to run in what was then the 13th District.

Now the 13th District extends at least 150 miles further east because of redistricting moves — the latest coming last week. Citing the redrawn map, the State Board of Elections told voters that earlier challenges couldn't continue because they no longer lived in the 13th.

Free Speech for People, a voting rights and elections reform group assisting with the 13th District challenges, had said challenges would be refiled by voters in whichever district Cawthorn would ultimately compete.

Cawthorn “must be held accountable for his actions which have threatened our democracy,” said Raleigh attorney John Wallace, who helped filed Wednesday's challenges. “Wisely, the Constitution provides a remedy for our protection. We seek here the imposition of that remedy.”

The voters allege that Cawthorn was disqualified from running because he fails to comply with a portion of a post-Civil War amendment to the Constitution pertaining to insurrections, citing his involvement in the rally that preceded the U.S. Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021. Cawthorn has said he's never engaged in insurrection against the U.S., and has sued to overturn the state's challenge process as unconstitutional.

A House Freedom Caucus member and close ally of former President Donald Trump, Cawthorn has said the previous effort to disqualify him was part of an organized effort to go after Trump's biggest supporters in Congress.

Free Speech for People has said similar candidacy challenges would be filed against members of Congress in other states associated with the Jan. 6 violence.

“While a handful of political activists spend their time trying to disenfranchise the voters of NC-11, Congressman Cawthorn is in Washington fulfilling his promise to fight for the patriots of western North Carolina,” Cawthorn spokesman Luke Ball said Wednesday in an email.

The latest challenges, one of which was turned in by former Transylvania County Commissioner Mike Hawkins, point to a section of the 14th Amendment. It states 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.”

Cawthorn addressed the Jan. 6 rally crowd and voted against certifying Democrat Joe Biden’s presidential victory.

The amendment was aimed in part at preventing congressmen who had fought on the Confederate side during the Civil War from returning to Congress. Cawthorn's federal lawsuit, which is still pending, says the provision doesn’t apply to him. The 14th Amendment states Congress can vote to remove such disqualifications, and legislators did just that in 1872 by ending them for most Confederates.

Cawthorn also says the state's candidacy investigation process violates his constitutional rights in part because it's triggered by a “reasonable suspicion” of wrongdoing and shifts the burden of proof away from his accusers and to him. A hearing on the lawsuit is set for March 21.

State law says the five-member state board must create a special panel of county board members from the district. The panel is required to conduct a hearing that ideally will be completed within four weeks and make a decision. The ruling can be appealed to the state board and later to an appeals court.

Cawthorn could be in a competitive GOP primary May 17 in the 11th District. Six other Republicans had filed for the seat as of Wednesday afternoon. Candidate filing ends at noon Friday.

Copyright 2022 WFAE. To see more, visit WFAE.

Gary D. Robertson | Associated Press