California state officials are now looking into whether any state laws were violated when researchers from Stanford University and Dartmouth College sent to some of the state’s voters a mailer similar to the one that has stirred significant controversy in Montana and in political science circles nationwide, TPM has learned.
TPM has obtained a copy of the mailer sent by the researchers to voters in California’s 25th Congressional District, which covers areas north of Los Angeles. It appears to bear the California state seal, a potential violation of state law, and ranks the candidates in the congressional race and the superintendent of public instruction race by ideology compared to President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.
The California secretary of state’s office had heard about the mailers but had not yet seen them until provided a copy by TPM.
“It is a violation of California government code to use the state seal,” Nicole Winger, a spokesperson for the California secretary of state’s office, told TPM. When asked if the mailers did appear to bear the state seal, she said: “Oh yeah. That looks like the state seal.”
Winger said that the secretary of state’s office had not yet received any complaints about the mailers, but the mailers are believed to have been sent recently and any complaints might not have reached the state level yet.
The secretary of state’s office forwarded copies of the mailer to the California Attorney General’s office and the Fair Political Practices Commission, which would be the agencies to conduct any formal investigation, Winger said.
“Now that we know and you’ve shared copies of it, we’re sharing that with the state agencies which have the enforcement and prosecutorial authority,” she told TPM by phone.
Jay Wierenga, communications director for the Fair Political Practices Commission, told TPM that they were “aware of” the mailer and it was being sent to senior staff. He could not comment further, he said.
Like one distributed in Montana, the California mailer says that it was sent as part of a research project to measure voter participation. After the controversy over the Montana mailer exploded last week, Stanford said that mailers had also been sent to 143,000 California voters in two congressional districts as a part of the same research project.
Jonathan Motl, Montana’s political practices commissioner, has already announced an investigation in that state over the use of the state seal on the mailer after the secretary of state filed a complaint. Motl said earlier this week that the investigation could lead to a “substantial” fine against the schools over the flyer and hoped to have the matter resolved before the election. He told TPM on Tuesday that he would allow the internal investigations by Dartmouth and Stanford to conclude before deciding how to proceed, likely after the first of the year.
The presidents for both schools sent an unusual open letter Tuesday to Montana voters, apologizing for the mailer and urging them to “ignore” it. Motl and the Montana secretary of state publicized the open letter at a press conference in Helena. Lisa Lapin, a Stanford spokeswoman, told TPM that the university was also “working on a response for California communities, whatever manner might be most helpful and most timely before the election.”
A Dartmouth spokesman did not immediately return TPM’s request for comment.
New Hampshire, where 66,000 mailers were sent by the researchers in September, is not currently conducting an investigation, David Scanlan, deputy secretary of state, told TPM on Tuesday. The office had been alerted to the mailer, he said, but no formal complaint had been filed. If, like the others, the state seal was present, it would potentially violate state law, he said.
“We’re so busy right now,” Scanlan said. “Unless somebody files a complaint, we usually put things aside and then take them up after the dust settles after the election.”