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Moving to Montana?

Kyle Dropp.jpgThe media has been full of stories about a faux pas by Government Professor Kyle Dropp, who is by all accounts a fine young teacher and researcher, and Stanford political scientists Adam Bonica and Jonathan Rodden. It seems that as part of their research they sent a mailing to 100,000 residents of Montana asking them to evaluate the political leaning of judges currently up for election to the state’s Supreme Court. The New York Times reports:

The Montana mailer, labeled “2014 Montana General Election Voter Information Guide,” featured the official state seal. It also placed the four judicial candidates on an ideological spectrum that included Barack Obama and Mitt Romney as reference points.

The mailers were designed to test whether voters who received information placing candidates on an ideological range would be more likely to vote. While political scientists have studied partisan races and voter turnout, less is known about nonpartisan races. Mr. Bonica, who had developed ideological scores for candidates and campaign donors, created a similar measure for state supreme court justices. The ideological scores for the Montana nonpartisan candidates were based in large part on the partisan candidates their donors had also given to…

The use of the state seal also upset officials because it cannot be used on campaign literature. Groups wishing to use it must obtain the permission of the Secretary of State. Montana officials have begun an investigation into the mailers’ display of the official seal. Montana’s commissioner of political practices, Jonathan Motl, has asked Stanford and Dartmouth to disavow the mailers.

Stanford and Darmouth have jointly sent an open letter to voters apologizing for the mailer, and both are now investigating the project.

The Associated Press adds further detail:

The presidents of Stanford University and Dartmouth College are sending 100,000 letters to Montana residents disavowing election mailers that state officials called deceitful and worried will influence the state’s two Supreme Court elections…

The letters by Dartmouth president Philip Hanlon and Stanford president John Hennessy dated Tuesday apologized for the mailers and said no research study should risk disrupting an election.

“We genuinely regret that it was sent and we ask Montana voters to ignore the mailer,” the letter said.

The wording was agreed to by the schools, Montana Secretary of State Linda McCulloch and Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl. The letters were being printed and are expected to arrive before next Tuesday’s election to the same 100,000 people who received the original mailers.

The $52,000 cost for mailing the letters will be paid for by the schools, Motl said.

The blog Talking Points Memo described the research project’s aims as follows, and it noted that the professors had conducted similar mailings in two other states::

According to a description provided by Stanford, the research was intended “to compare voter participation levels in precincts that receive the additional information with voter participation in precincts that do not.” It included 100,000 mailers sent throughout Montana, 66,000 mailers sent in September in one New Hampshire congressional district, and 143,000 mailers sent to two congressional districts in California. There have not been reports of similar complaints in California or New Hampshire.”

Talking Points Memo also reproduced the flyers themselves, which were part of a complaint filed as a private citizen by Montana Secretary of State Linda McCulloch:

Montana Flyer1A.jpg

Montana Flyer2A.jpg

Of course, the flyers look like any piece of campaign literature that seeks to situate a candidate on the political spectrum, perhaps in an unflattering fashion. Nothing wrong with that, except when the exercise is paid for by money coming from a tax-exempt foundation and an educational institution, in this case “a $250,000 grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and a matching $100,000 in support from Stanford,” according to a Stanford spokesman. Both entities are limited by their legal status from engaging in partisan political activity.

The Associated Press noted in a second story:

The project was approved by the Dartmouth Institutional Review Board, but not the Stanford board, and the university is conducting a full investigation, [Stanford University spokeswoman Lisa] Lapin said.

“We can now say that the study did not follow Stanford’s protocols that would have required a review by the Stanford IRB,” she said.

Dartmouth’s website defines the Institutional Review Board as follows:

The Committee for the Protection of Human Subjects (CPHS) is the Institutional Review Board (IRB) at Dartmouth College — a federally mandated committee with the charge of overseeing institutional research projects involving human participants.

The Board has 66 members, the great majority of whom seem to have a background in medicine rather than political science.

It looks like someone dropped the ball.

Addendum: The College’s obligation as a tax-exempt institution to remain impartial in political races finds expression in matters as simple as the visit to campus by a Senator. Look at the efforts made by the Rockefeller Center to note that today’s talk by Senator Baldwin of Wisconsin is not part of a partisan campaign in Tuesday’s mid-term elections:

Rocky Baldwin.jpg

Addendum: Where the heck is The D on this story? When the AP and the NYT are reporting on College matters before our paper of record, there is something clearly wrong in Robinson Hall. Perhaps we’ll hear something once the 21-person Dartmouth Office of Public Affairs has issued a press release.

Addendum: The Chronicle of Higher Education has now published the letter sent to approximately 100,000 Montana voters by Phil Hanlon and Stanford President John Hennessy:

Montana Letter.jpg

Uh, Phil, that would be Stanford University and Dartmouth College.

The Chronicle also reproduced printers proofs of the flyers sent to New Hampshire voters:

NH Flyer1A.jpg

NH Flyer2A.jpg

Addendum: TPM has also found the California flyer:

California Flyer.jpg

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