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NC election officials say a challenge to Madison Cawthorn's eligibility to run should stay

Gage Skidmore / Flickr
U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn, R.-N.C., is seen in a file photo.

A formal effort to evaluate whether U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina should be disqualified as a candidate because of his involvement in the January 2021 rally that preceded the U.S. Capitol riot should be allowed to continue, voters and election officials told a federal judge.

Nearly a dozen North Carolina voters had filed a candidate challenge last month against the first-term Republican. On Monday, attorneys for the voters and the State Board of Elections turned in court filings arguing that Cawthorn's motion to cancel the challenge process be rejected.

The candidate challenge says Cawthorn fails to comply with the portion of a post-Civil War amendment to the Constitution pertaining to insurrections. Cawthorn’s speech at the rally supporting then-President Donald Trump, his other comments and information in published reports provide a “reasonable suspicion or belief” that he helped facilitate the insurrection, the challenge reads.

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, 26, who represents far western North Carolina in Congress, said last week that he has “never engaged in, or would ever engage in, an insurrection against the United States.”

Cawthorn's attorneys wrote in a Jan. 31 lawsuit that the state’s candidate challenge process violates constitutional rights and should be struck down. A provision in the 14th Amendment that prohibits members of Congress who have engaged in an insurrection to continue serving is not applicable, his lawyers argued. They want U.S. District Judge Richard Myers to issue a preliminary injunction. A hearing date hadn't been set as of Tuesday.

Lawyers for the voters on Monday asked that they be permitted to fight Cawthorn's lawsuit as a defendant with the elections board. They said the “reasonable suspicion” standard that the candidate challenge procedure relies upon to examine qualifications places little if any burden upon Cawthorn's First Amendment right to run for office and his right to due process.

The voters’ lawyers also said Cawthorn’s attorneys are misguided in arguing that the 14th Amendment provision doesn't apply to Cawthorn because of an 1872 federal law that removed office-holding disqualifications for most Confederates who fought in the Civil War.

“Cawthorn argues that the 1872 Act granted amnesty to all future insurrectionists from 1872 until the end of time,” they wrote, adding that the law couldn't be construed as removing political impediments that would otherwise prevent people from taking office from those not yet born 150 years ago.

The State Board of Elections, which is already a named defendant, wrote Monday that Cawthorn lacks legal standing to pursue his claims and that his alleged injuries are speculative for now.

The candidate challenge process ensures that voters are presented with slates of qualified candidates, which “is fundamental to representative government” and prevents costly special elections in case a winning candidate is disqualified after an election result, state attorney Terence Steed wrote.

The next step in the challenge process would be for the state elections board to form a special panel of county board members from the new 13th Congressional District that Cawthorn plans to run in.

But a state court ruled recently that the process will be delayed while redistricting litigation that could alter U.S. House boundaries is resolved. The state Supreme Court struck down legislative and congressional maps last Friday and gave the legislature until Feb. 18 to redraw them. Candidate filing for the May 17 primary is set to resume Feb. 24.

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