Two prominent colleges have been accused of “voter manipulation” by US Senator Jon Tester for the role they played in a mailer that was sent out to 100,000 Montanans pertaining to two Montana Supreme Court races.
Tester wrote a letter to the presidents of Stanford University and Dartmouth College about the situation, asking for disclosure pertaining to the funding for the research project that sent out the mailers, and made them aware of a pending investigation by federal postal authorities.
“The Montana Supreme Court rules on matters relating to every walk of life, from water rights to relations with Indian Nations to clean air and water,” Tester wrote. “Your institutions may have now influenced these decisions by meddling in our elections.”
Tester also referred to the mailer as “a so-called research project that uses Montana elections as a political laboratory experiment, at the expense of free and fair judicial elections in our state.”
Lisa Lapin, a spokeswoman for Stanford, said that funds for the research project come from a $250,000 grant through the Hewlett Foundation and an additional $100,000 matching grant from the University.
The mailer, “2014 Montana General Election Voter Information Guide,” sent to 100,000 Montanans this week by political science faculty members from the two schools, rates the four candidates running in two races for the Montana Supreme Court as “more liberal” or “more conservative,” and encourages voters to bring the pamphlet with them to the polls. The title, along with the use of the official state seal, make the mailers look like official state documents.
According to Montana Secretary of State Linda McCulloch, the mailers are in violation of several state laws. Montana state law places a ban on “fraudulent contrivance” that could sway how a person decides to vote; it is also prohibited to pass out incorrect or misleading information pertaining to election procedures; and there is a requirement that all persons who participate in political activity within the state be registered there.
“The mailer prominently displays the Great Seal of Montana on both sides of the advertisement and deceitfully gives the impression that the information has been endorsed by my office and/or the State of Montana,” McCulloch said in her complaint filed with the commissioner of political practices.
Lapin said the university is conducting a “full investigation” into the project and has apologized to all Montanans who received the mailer.
The project, a joint study between the two colleges, looks into how information on “candidate positioning” effects voter turnout in races where voters do not have prior knowledge to a candidate’s political party. The state’s judicial elections are nonpartisan in an effort to ensure an independent judiciary.
An “internal review” of the project is being conducted at Dartmouth. The Dartmouth Institutional Review Board had previously approved the project.
Tester said he strongly supports academic freedom to perform research, but has “incredible concern about universities and noncandidate groups manipulating data and testing their hypotheses on the voting public.”