RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — A state judge on Thursday rejected rapper Kanye West’s bid to be listed as a presidential candidate on Virginia’s general election ballot, as part of a campaign that many see as helpful to President Donald Trump’s reelection chances.
West’s presidential aspirations started in July and he’s had mixed success getting on ballots across the country as his relationship with Trump, as well as his own antics, have raised questions about the run.
While his collection of ballot signatures was approved by the Virginia Department of Elections last month, two of the 11 electors needed for his campaign to get on the ballot submitted affidavits saying they had been misled by the rapper’s campaign staff.
The two victims of the alleged fraud, Matthan Wilson and Bryan Wright, filed an emergency injunction Tuesday with the hopes of removing their names from his rolls, which would keep West off the ballot ahead of Friday’s deadline to print ballots.
Wilson, a high school government teacher, called into Thursday’s hearing via Zoom and said he normally supports the idea of a third party candidate, but argued West’s campaign did not make their intentions clear when he was approached by them.
“They said they were collecting names for voters to be placed in a pool to be electors for the state of Virginia,” he said. “I felt I was misled into signing that document under false pretenses and I do not intend to vote for him.”
Thursday’s two-page ruling, issued by Richmond Circuit Judge Joi Taylor shortly after the hour-long, socially distanced hearing, said she was swayed by evidence of signatures being collected by “improper, fraudulent and/or misleading means” and other violations.
Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring represented the state Board of Elections in the dispute.
Herring, a Democrat, made waves late Wednesday when he said in a response to the complaint that Wilson and Wright’s case raises questions of both “crime” and “fraud.” Instead of defending the candidate’s effort, the attorney general asked the court to make the final call.
“Fraud, illegal and underhanded behavior has no place in Virginia elections,” Senior Assistant Attorney General Heather Lockerman told the judge Thursday. “We’re here to listen and support whatever finding the court makes.”
Herring’s response was followed by West seeking to intervene in the case via Roanoke-based lawyer Chris K. Kowalczuk.
Kowalczuk, described in local reporting as a “hardcore Republican” who takes “tough cases few want,” admitted he knew little of election law and instead accused the attorney general’s office of racism for allegedly trying to keep West, a Black man, off the ballot.
“For the court to remove an African-American from the ballot at the plaintiffs’ request, we all need to reexamine the way we look at [how] disparate treatment impacts every part of our lives,’ he said.
Justin M. Sheldon, an attorney with the Virginia Beach-based Breit Cantor Grana and Buckner who represented the two electors, was pleased to hear Taylor’s decision.
“We’re very happy the court carefully considered the evidence and protected the voters,” he said in a text message after the ruling was released. “This ruling makes clear that Virginia will not tolerate fraud in its election process.”
While Virginia voters will have one less name to pick from on Nov. 3, or sooner given the state’s new mail-in voting system, in the short term it is those who are printing the ballots who will be impacted most by Thursday’s decision.
“They delayed us putting [Kanye] on the ballot and now they want to delay us more?” said the owner of one Virginia-based printer, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons, about the rapper’s come-lately effort. The printer said he had already begun printing ballots from some localities, but he knew he wasn’t the only one doing so.
Judge Taylor’s order instructs cities that have already gotten their ballots printed to “take all necessary measures under [state law] to provide notice to voters about Kanye West’s disqualification.”
What remains to be seen is if someone will face criminal charges for allegedly misleading Wright and others. Herring’s filing notes the determination of “whether or not a crime was committed” by those involved in West’s campaign is reserved “solely to the courts.” Still, the word “crime” is used twice in the attorney general’s response, and “fraud” is used even more. Additionally, ballot signature documents show the circulators traveled from out of state to collect signatures for West, which could require extrajudicial proceedings if charges are brought.
State forgery laws say “any person who shall obtain, by any false pretense or token, the signature of another person, to any such writing, with intent to defraud any other person, shall be deemed guilty of the forgery thereof, and shall be subject to” a class 5 felony which carries a $2,500 fine and up to a year in jail.
Todd Stone, a former federal prosecutor turned defense attorney, said fraud can be either a civil or criminal charge, but we probably won’t hear about such charges any time soon.
“If it turns out they lured people to sign with false information, or if they used any sort of fraud to qualify, then I would expect that it will be charged at some point,” Stone said in an email.
If an investigation were to be opened it would start locally. For Wright, that means the Chesapeake Bay-adjacent county of Suffolk. A representative for the Suffolk County Commonwealth’s Attorney office said they had not been contacted about any West-related fraud.
Questions about possible criminal charges for those involved in West’s campaign were sent to Herring’s office but not returned by press time.
West’s lawyer refused to comment following Thursday’s hearing.
The rapper has virtually no chance of winning the election because he has missed too many deadlines to get on state ballots. The fact that he is pushing ahead with his campaign has led many to believe it is an effort to help Trump’s reelection by taking away some of the votes that would otherwise go to Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.