In an academic experiment gone awry, researchers at Stanford and Dartmouth Universities sent official-looking campaign mailers assessing the political leanings of candidates to voters in California, Montana and New Hampshire — a move that may have violated university policy and state laws. The universities were forced to apologize Tuesday to 100,000 Montana voters who received one of the mailers. Adorned with a state seal, it placed four Montana state Supreme Court justices running for nonpartisan offices on an ideological scale, comparing them to President Barack Obama and former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney. “Take this to the polls!” the guide says in large letters. That led Montana Secretary of State Linda McCulloch to file a complaint late last week with her state’s commissioner of political practices, saying the mailer appeared to violate several state laws.
The researchers — affiliated with the nonpartisan political science study Database on Ideology, Money in Politics, and Elections — sent similar election materials to 143,000 voters in California and 66,000 in New Hampshire. In fine print, the mailers disclose they are part of a “joint research project” at the universities. But the universities now acknowledge that was improper.
“On behalf of Stanford and Dartmouth universities, we sincerely apologize for the confusion and concern caused by an election mailer recently sent as part of an academic research study,” said the open letter from the campus presidents. “We genuinely regret that it was sent and we ask Montana voters to ignore the mailer.”
Montana election officials are conducting an inquiry.