Over these last weeks of the election season in North Carolina, the state Republican Party has lumbered past that often faint line that separates politics from disinformation.

The US Senate debate last week between Democrat Cheri Beasley and Republican Ted Budd promised few surprises, and delivered them. The candidates are in as close a race as can be, but there was no cliched October shock during the debate to upend the contest, and Beasley and Budd’s positions on key issues are clear, with a whole lot of daylight between them. 

The Senate seat at play is one of only a few across the country that could help decide which party is in control of Congress, and, consequently, will set its agenda on abortion, climate change, voting rights and lots of other issues that will have huge effects on North Carolinians’ day-to-day lives.

But in such a close race and with so much at stake, it can be difficult for voters to differentiate between typical partisan exaggeration and blatant misrepresentation.

Over these last weeks of the election season in North Carolina, the state Republican Party has lumbered past that often faint line that separates politics from disinformation.

One of the frequent Republican attacks against Beasley, a former chief justice of the NC Supreme Court, is that her record is “soft on crime.”

An ad paid for by groups supporting Budd draws on a decades-long history of similarly unfounded charges against Democrats, and it deliberately misrepresents a high profile court case from Beasley’s time on the court. 

A Very Different Reality

It’s not in dispute that Torrey Grady, the subject of the court case, was found guilty of horrible crimes. 

He was convicted of sexually assaulting a young child and then, when he was on parole, of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old. The second charge notched him as a repeat offender, which automatically put him under a state program that tracks sex offenders with a satelite monitoring system. He was released from prison and completed his parole, so he was not being monitored in any other way by the state.

Grady filed a suit that said this forever tracking violated his 14th Amendment rights against “unreasonable searches.”

This may all sound like unnecessary background, but real life is lived in the specifics, and it’s in the specifics that the attack ad falls apart. 

At first courts dismissed his suit, saying that the tracking system didn’t even count as a search, therefore it couldn’t ever be an unreasonable search. The case eventually made its way to the US Supreme Court where the court ruled, unanimously, that GPS-stye tracking totally counted as a search. 

Whether a given search was unreasonable and therefore unconstitutional, however, was up to the state courts, the Supreme Court and all its conservative judges ruled.

So, the case went back to North Carolina to make its way again through the court system. 

The initial court ruled the search was constitutional. But the appeals court said that in Grady’s case only, the forever tracking was not constitutional.

So this is the matter that came to the NC Supreme Court with its then-Chief Justice Cheri Beasley.

The case was not whether Grady had committed a crime. It was not whether he deserved forgiveness. The case was about whether anyone who had served his time and was no longer even on parole or probation could have every move he ever made for the rest of his life, tracked, noted and recorded.

The ad says that the GPS tracking was instituted under a bipartisan state law, “until Cheri Beasley struck it down,” and that “Beasley ruled that it violated the child predator’s privacy.”

Um, no.

First, the majority of the court, not just Beasley, delivered the ruling, and Beasley did not write it. 

Second, the ruling did not strike down anything. It did not say that North Carolina’s entire sex offender monitoring system was unconstitutional: it focused only on whether convicted sex offenders who had completed their sentences and were not on parole or probabtion could still be monitored 24 hours a day for the rest of their lives even if they never committed another crime. 

So: The court ruled that North Carolina could still perpetually monitor any convicted sex offender who was stil on proabtion or out on parole. Wherever they go, whoever they see, 24 hours a day, no problem. 

The state, the court said, could also still assign satelite-based monitoring for a set amount of time to a sex offender who had completed all post conviction time served and state supervision. 

What the state could no longer do and what, the court ruled WAS unconstitutional, was to forever track a sex offender who had completed their sentences, and were no longer on parole, probation or any other kind of formal state mandated supervision. 

The NC Supreme Court’s ruling was not about Grady’s crimes, but rather, again, about whether a person convicted of a crime who has served their sentence and is not being supervised actively through a parole or probation can be tracked for the rest of their lives.

This is a very different reality then the one presented in the ad. 

An Old Trick

While this ad is tied to a specific case, it draws on a deep history of Republicans dredging up fear about crime.

These attacks persist despite clear data that crime has been falling for decades.

Even the backdrop to Budd’s attacks is flawed.

In August, the North Carolina Troopers Association endorsed Budd, and cited bad data as a primary reason. 

“With violent crime at an all-time high, it is imperative we have a U.S. senator who will support law enforcement,” the group’s president said at the time. 

But, as the non-partisan fact-checking site PolitiFact shows, “historical data show violent crime is not at an all-time high — neither in North Carolina nor in the U.S.”

PolitiFact continued: “While violent crime has increased since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, experts say the overall rate of violent crime still falls far short of records from the early 1990s.” 

In the early 1990s, George H.W Bush was president. 

PolitiFact rated the association’s claim, which was featured on Budd’s website, as False.

And these attacks don’t stop at Beasley.

In the last several weeks, conservative groups have sent mailers to potential voters that altered photos of Democratic candidates in North Carolina, namely NC House member Ricky Hurtado of Alamance County, and Terence Everitt of Wake. 

The mailers photoshopped “Defund the Police” on the candidates’ shirts. 

While both have called for various police reforms, neither candidate has pledged to defund the police, and Hurtado has voted for several pieces of legislation that increase resources to state law enforcement groups. 

Hurtado, the first male Latino to be elected to NC’s General Assembly, is facing re-election against Republican Steve Ross.

Altered photos are “a frequent misinformation tactic,”  the anti-disinformation group News Literacy Project, says.

“It is extremely common for photo manipulators to target T-shirt messages. Before you like or share an image, confirm its veracity by doing a reverse image search using tools from Google and TinEye. You can also use Snopes or other fact-checking sites.”