News & Features

Stanford Apologizes for Montana Election Mailers

Mailers sent to 100,000 voters in Montana as part of the research project

Stanford University officials apologized for any confusion caused by election mailers arriving at Montana voters’ homes in a research project conducted by political science faculty members.

The university is conducting an inquiry into the research methods of the project by Stanford University and Dartmouth College researchers, Stanford spokeswoman Lisa Lapin said Thursday.

“We do share the concerns that the mailers have caused confusion among voters,” Lapin said. “We sincerely apologize to those voters and we apologize to the secretary of state for the confusion we caused.”

The “2014 Montana General Election Voter Information Guide” mailers carry the Montana state seal and rate how liberal or conservative the four nonpartisan candidates for state Supreme Court are.

Secretary of State Linda McCulloch called the mailers “deceitful” and led voters to believe they came from her office. The mailers crossed a line in attempting to influence voters, she said.

The mailers were sent to 100,000 voters in Montana. Two other states are also in the study: New Hampshire, where voters in one congressional district received 66,000 mailers, and California, where information was sent to 143,000 voters in two congressional districts.

No complaints have been received from those states, Lapin said.

The study is nonpartisan and independent of state officials or candidates, and it was approved by the Dartmouth Institutional Review Board, she said.

That review board approval is key to the school’s investigation into the research, but “conversations are ongoing on campus about the nature and scope of the project,” Lapin said.

Montana judicial elections are nonpartisan, meaning that candidates cannot identify themselves as part of a political party. The rules are meant to ensure an independent judiciary.

Former state solicitor general Lawrence VanDyke is challenging incumbent Justice Mike Wheat, and Billings attorney W. David Herbert is attempting to unseat Justice Jim Rice.

McCulloch said she and Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl are looking into what laws might have been broken, if any.

“The concern is that it has the appearance of a communication on behalf of the state of Montana when it is not, in fact, a state of Montana communication,” Motl said. “It does not look like a scholarly document.”

The fliers carry the state seal and the title “2014 Montana General Election Voter Information Guide.” Underneath, it places the judicial candidates on a scale from “More Liberal” to “More Conservative,” with President Barack Obama and former Republican Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney at either end of the scale.

“Take this to the polls!” a line at the bottom of the mailer says.

The study sought to learn whether voters are more likely to participate in elections if they are provided more information about candidates, Lapin said.