HELENA — U.S. Sen. Jon Tester on Friday accused two prominent colleges of “voter manipulation” for their role in a mailer sent this week to 100,000 Montanans, in connection with two Montana Supreme Court races.
Tester, D-Mont., in a letter to the presidents of Stanford University and Dartmouth College, also demanded they disclose the funding for the research project that sent the mailer and said he’s asking federal postal authorities to investigate.
“The Montana Supreme Court rules on matters relating to every walk of life, from water rights to relations with Indian Nations to clean air and water,” Tester wrote. “Your institutions may have now influenced these decisions by meddling in our elections.”
Stanford spokeswoman Lisa Lapin said Friday the research project that sent the mailer is funded by a $250,000 grant from the Hewlett Foundation and a matching $100,000 grant from the university.
Tester’s letter is in response to a one-sheet mailer sent earlier this week to 100,000 Montanans titled “2014 Montana General Election Voter Information Guide.”
The mailer, which said it’s funded by researchers at Stanford and Dartmouth, rates the four candidates in two Montana Supreme Court races as “more liberal” or “more conservative” and tells Montana voters to take the guide to the polls.
Montana Secretary of State Linda McCulloch, who is in charge of election law, filed a complaint Friday with the state political practices commissioner, saying the mailer violated several state laws.
Tester also labeled the mailer as part “of a so-called research project that uses Montana elections as a political laboratory experiment, at the expense of free and fair judicial elections in our state.”
The mailer labels two candidates in one race — Supreme Court Justice Jim Rice and his challenger, W. David Herbert — as “more conservative.”
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It labels the candidates in the other race differently, calling Supreme Court Justice Mike Wheat “more liberal” and his challenger, Lawrence VanDyke, “more conservative.”
The Wheat-VanDyke race by far is the more hotly contested race, with both sides attacking each other and at least four outside groups spending more than $800,000 trying to influence the outcome.
Lapin said Stanford, a private university in Stanford, Calif., is conducting a “full investigation” of the research project. The university also has issued an apology to Montanans.
A Stanford University website says the joint study is looking at how information on “candidate positioning” affects voter turnout in judicial and other elections where voters can’t distinguish between the candidates by political party. Candidates in Montana judicial elections are nonpartisan, running without party affiliation.
Dartmouth spokesman Justin Anderson said Friday the college in Hanover, N.H., also is conducting an “internal review” of the study, which sent material to voters in Montana, New Hampshire and California.
The Hewlett Foundation, which is lead funder for the study, is an $8.6 billion foundation based on Menlo Park, Calif. It was founded by William Hewlett, a Stanford graduate and co-founder of the Hewlett-Packard Co.
Lapin said Stanford’s president, John Hennessy, intended to talk with Tester as soon as possible.
Tester, Montana’s senior U.S. senator, also wrote Friday to the chief U.S. postal inspector, asking him to investigate the mailer for possible violations of the 1990 Deceptive Mailings Prevention Act.
Tester said he strongly supports academic freedom to perform research but has “incredible concern about universities and non-candidate groups manipulating data and testing their hypotheses on the voting public.”