U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn is a frequent source of shame to North Carolina. He displays little to no semblance of a moral compass, regularly deals in fictitious and potentially seditious rhetoric and, according to a report, may have been among the members of Congress who were “intimately involved” in planning the events of Jan. 6.
But can he be constitutionally disqualified from holding office? And an even bigger question this week: should he be?
A group of North Carolina voters is hoping the answer is yes. Backed by a progressive group and two former state Supreme Court justices, voters from the 13th Congressional District filed a complaint before the State Board of Elections seeking to disqualify him from running for reelection in 2022 due to his purported connection to the U.S. Capitol insurrection.
The group, in its complaint, also says it has reasonable suspicion that Cawthorn “was involved in efforts to intimidate Congress and the vice president into rejecting valid electoral votes and subvert the essential constitutional function of an orderly and peaceful transition of power.”
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The legal basis for disqualification is obscure and somewhat thin. It’s based on a clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution designed to prevent former Confederate leaders from serving in Congress after the Civil War.
The amendment states that any elected official who has taken an oath to uphold the Constitution can be disqualified from holding office again if they have “engaged in insurrection or rebellion” against the United States.
In essence, the challengers are arguing that this clause applies to elected officials who helped facilitate the insurrection. The group intends to file similar complaints against other members of Congress in the near future.
But it’s a charge with little to no evidence — at least not yet. It’s not clear just how involved Cawthorn was in organizing an insurrection, or if he was involved at all. He’s certainly propagated baseless theories of election fraud and made remarks that come alarmingly close to incitement of violence, but, abhorrent as they may be, those don’t appear to be criminal acts. Until concrete evidence emerges that he played an organizational or participatory role in Jan. 6, attempting to disqualify him is an effort that’s bound to fail.
Supporters of the effort say that it’s nevertheless important that Cawthorn testify and be held accountable, and the complaint, which places the burden of proof on Cawthorn to show he is indeed qualified, will help achieve that. We agree that Cawthorn should answer to the public and to his constituents, but that’s what debates and town halls and, yes, media interviews are for. Dragging him in to speak under oath might be satisfying, but that’s not sufficient reason to pursue this effort.
The group filing the complaint is aiming higher, of course. It would like Cawthorn disqualified. But absent real evidence of Cawthorn aiding an insurrection, his fitness for office is for voters to decide, not the North Carolina Board of Elections.
The effort itself comes with a cost. It sows more divisiveness and cynicism about how we choose our leaders. It gives Republicans a chance to say, with some merit, that progressives are attempting an election end-around against a candidate they couldn’t beat at the polls. And that’s wrong, no matter who is trying to do it.
No, Madison Cawthorn isn’t good for North Carolina. He’s the symptom and symbol of a much larger problem, the growing wing of a party that’s threatening our democracy. But Cawthorn, and the larger threat he represents, won’t be defeated by a technicality embedded within the U.S. Constitution, or by the subjective application of an old law.
Attempting to oust him this way is ill-advised. Unless new and legally damning information about Cawthorn’s Jan. 6 role surfaces, his case should be made in front of the voters.