Political scientists from two of the nation’s most highly respected universities, usually impartial observers of political firestorms, now find themselves at the center of an electoral drama with tens of thousands of dollars and the election of two state supreme court justices at stake. Their research experiment, which involved sending official-looking flyers to 100,000 Montana voters just weeks before Election Day, is now the subject of an official state inquiry that could lead to substantial fines against them or their schools. Their peers in the field have ripped their social science experiment as a “misjudgment” or — stronger still — “malpractice.” What went so wrong? Last Thursday, the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices started receiving complaints from voters who had received an election mailer (see below) bearing the state seal and describing the ideological standing of non-partisan candidates for the Montana Supreme Court. The fine print said that it had been sent by researchers from Dartmouth College and Stanford University, part of their research into voter participation. But that wasn’t satisfactory for the voters who received the flyers or the state officials to whom they complained.
Jonathan Motl, the state commissioner, told TPM that the flyer has elicited the most complaints that his office has seen this election cycle. It describes the candidates in two Montana Supreme Court elections — who are supposed to be non-partisan — on an ideological scale. The candidates are placed on a line graph that compares them to President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.
It is titled as a “2014 Montana General Election Voter Information Guide” with the state of Montana seal featured prominently. Only the fine print identifies the mailer as part of a research project.
“This particular flyer triggered such a strong reaction among Montanans for two reasons. No. 1, it used the state seal. Just based on the people I’ve talked to, that was strongly offensive. They didn’t like their state seal being appropriated,” Motl said. “The second thing that’s confusing about it is the intimation that it serves a research purpose. Because in the judgment of the people looking at it, it doesn’t serve a research purpose, it serves a political purpose.”