The political science research project gone wrong that roiled Montana in the run-up to the November elections has now gotten two elite universities into a heap of legal trouble — and could create all kinds of new headaches for social science researchers.
In a report released Tuesday, Montana’s commissioner of political practices found that the mailers researchers from Stanford and Dartmouth sent to more than 100,000 Montana voters last fall amounted to advocating for particular candidates. That advocacy triggered state law requirements for the universities themselves to register as political committees and report their campaign expenditures, which the universities failed to do.
“They could legally make this expenditure,” commissioner Jonathan Motl told TPM on Tuesday, referring to the thousands of dollars the researchers likely spent in sending mailers to Montana voters. “But they had to register as a political committee, report the expenditure and disclose the source of the money for the expenditure.”
On top of the failure to register and make the required disclosures, Motl also found that the researchers use of the Montana state seal on the flyer was a potential criminal law violation. Motl has referred the allegedly improper use of the state seal to the local prosecutor for potential criminal prosecution, and the failure to register and disclose campaign expenditure to the same prosecutor for potential civil prosecution.
Stanford and Dartmouth were highly critical of the findings in Tuesday’s report and maintain that while there were errors made in the conduct of the research project, that they did not amount to state law violations.
“This was an academic research project. It was not partisan, and it was not intended to advance or oppose any candidate,” Diana Lawrence, Dartmouth’s director of media relations, said to TPM by email.
How could a political science research project have gone so wrong?
Last October, more than 100,000 Montanans, or about 15 percent of Montana voting population, received flyers titled “2014 Montana General Election Voter Information Guide.” The mailer placed candidates in two nonpartisan state Supreme Court races on a scale comparing their ideological leanings to those of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. In smaller print, the flyer noted that it was part of Stanford and Dartmouth research project and was not an endorsement of any particular party or candidate. The flyers also carried an emblem of the Montana State Seal, which, the report noted, researchers used without the state’s permission.
The point of the project was to determine whether receiving additional information about the candidates affected voter participation. But voters quickly began complaining about the mailers, and the project caused a mini-firestorm in Montana. About a week after the flyers originally went out, Stanford and Dartmouth were forced to apologize publicly and sent a letter of apology to all the recipients in advance of the election.
Tuesday’s report concluded that since the language and imagery on the flyer was not linked to a specific issue or legislation, it was meant to encourage voting directly for candidates. Furthermore, the mailers were sent specifically to areas with either high Democratic or high Republican voter concentration, rather than the general population, where the information provided by the flyer was most likely to stir recipients to vote for candidates aligned with their ideological views.
“The Montana Flyer was unquestionably election and candidate focused and it was unquestionably focused on increasing voter turnout for a particular candidate, as determined by the targeted mailing,” the report said.
The report flagged a number of other issues in how researchers — Dartmouth’s Kyle Dropp, and Stanford’s Adam Bonica and Jonathan Rodden — went about the project. According to the report, researchers bypassed or ignored the institutional review process at each college meant to evaluate such research endeavors. Some political scientists outside of Dartmouth and Stanford have told TPM they found the project to be “malpractice“ and “improper and unethical,” since it could influence the results of a real-time election.
Officials at Dartmouth and Stanford pushed back against the report’s findings.
Dartmouth’s Lawrence told TPM that the school was “disappointed” in the conclusion that the researchers were participating in express advocacy of candidates, and that Dartmouth did not agree with the decision.
“We also conducted our own internal investigation and have consequently modified our Institutional Review Board policy,” she said. “We look forward to reaching a resolution of this matter with the authorities in Montana.”
Stanford also disagreed with Motl’s finding in a statement sent to TPM by communications official Lisa Lapin. It said the school “does not believe any election laws were violated.”
The findings now rest in the hands of Leo Gallagher, the Lewis and Clark County attorney, who has 30 days to decide whether to pursue the case himself or send it back Motl to adjudicate. Gallagher told TPM Tuesday he is still reviewing Motl’s report but expects that he will hand it over back to the commissioner’s office to handle.
“Commissioner Motl has been very active in these cases and I have not taken a single one,” Gallagher says. “Unless it is very unique, he is going to get it back in the next 30 days.”
Motl, who has been commissioner for about two years, says these cases are typically settled out of court. But if a settlement is not reached, he also has the option to pursue a civil prosecution.
“Once we make a sufficiency finding, it doesn’t just disappear,” he says. “There were more Montanans who called in and wanted something done about this piece of communication than what I’ve seen in two years.”