HELENA — Montana and Stanford University officials launched separate investigations Thursday into official-looking mailers that arrived at Montana homes this week rating how liberal or conservative the four nonpartisan candidates for state Supreme Court are.
The mailers are part of a research project being conducted by the political science faculties of Stanford University and Dartmouth College, but they appear as though they came from the state.
The fliers carry the state seal and the title “2014 Montana General Election Voter Information Guide.” Underneath, it places the judicial candidates on a scale from “More Liberal” to “More Conservative,” with President Barack Obama and former Republican Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney at either end of the scale.
“Take this to the polls!” a line at the bottom of the mailer says.
The fliers, which have shown up in mailboxes in Helena, Missoula, Kalispell and Billings, are deceitful because the seal and the title gives the appearance that they came from Secretary of State Linda McCulloch’s office, McCulloch said.
“This was a piece intended to influence voters,” she said. “I think they actually crossed the line from research into influencing voters.”
Only her office can authorize use of the state seal, she said. McCulloch is working with Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl to address whether any laws have been broken.
Motl said the mailers’ appearance two weeks before the election, the use of the state seal and the printed directions for voters to take them into voting booths is cause for concern.
“The concern is that it has the appearance of a communication on behalf of the state of Montana when it is not, in fact, a state of Montana communication,” Motl said. “It does not look like a scholarly document.”
The mailers could be considered advocacy, in which case the people behind them must file formal disclosures with his office, Motl said.
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Small type on the fliers disclose they were paid for by Stanford and Dartmouth researchers, and directs readers to a Stanford University webpage.
The webpage says the fliers are part of a study “on the impact of information about candidate positioning on turnout and ballot roll-off” in nonpartisan elections.
The study sought to learn whether voters are more likely to participate in elections if they are provided more information about candidates, Stanford spokeswoman Lisa Lapin said.
The study is nonpartisan and independent of state officials or candidates, and it was approved by the Dartmouth Institutional Review Board, she said.
The mailers were sent to 100,000 voters in Montana. Two other states are also in the study: New Hampshire, where voters in one congressional district received 66,000 mailers, and California, where information was sent to 143,000 voters in two congressional districts.
The university has started its own inquiry into whether proper research procedures were followed, Lapin said.
“We are taking this very seriously,” she said. “We sincerely apologize to those voters and we apologize to the secretary of state for the confusion.”
Montana judicial elections are nonpartisan, meaning that candidates cannot identify themselves as part of a political party. The rules are meant to ensure an independent judiciary.
Former state solicitor general Lawrence VanDyke is challenging incumbent Justice Mike Wheat, and Billings attorney W. David Herbert is attempting to unseat Justice Jim Rice