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?
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