- Associated Press - Friday, October 24, 2014

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - Montana Secretary of State Linda McCulloch filed a complaint Friday alleging that Stanford University and Dartmouth College researchers broke four laws by sending 100,000 election mailers to voters that appeared to come from the state.

The mailers by political science faculty members from the two schools rate whether the four nonpartisan Supreme Court candidates in this year’s elections are liberal or conservative. Their use of the state seal, along with the title “2014 Montana General Election Voter Information Guide,” makes them appear to be official state documents.

“The mailer prominently displays the Great Seal of Montana on both sides of the advertisement and deceitfully gives the impression that the information has been endorsed by my office and/or the State of Montana,” McCulloch said in her complaint filed with the commissioner of political practices.

The three campaign laws the mailers are accused of violating include:

- A ban on “fraudulent contrivance” that could cause a person to vote a certain way.

- A prohibition on the dissemination of information that gives incorrect or misleading election procedures.

- A requirement that a person or group engaging in political activity register with the state.

McCulloch also alleges violation of a fourth law prohibiting the impersonation of a public servant.

Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl will investigate the allegations of campaign violations.

Stanford University spokeswoman Lisa Lapin said Friday the project was meant to compare voter turnout between precincts that receive the mailers and those that don’t, to determine whether more information about the candidates leads to greater voter participation.

She said she did not know why researchers decided to provide voters with information about how partisan a nonpartisan judicial candidate may be.

The project was approved by the Dartmouth Institutional Review Board, but not the Stanford board, and the university is conducting a full investigation, 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 College spokesman Justin Anderson declined to answer any questions about the project, saying the college is conducting an internal review.

The independent project by the Dartmouth and Stanford political science faculty members was paid for with a $250,000 grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and a matching $100,000 in support from Stanford, she said.

The unrestricted grant to Stanford’s Spatial Social Science Laboratory funds a wide array of research projects. The Hewlett foundation is one of the nation’s largest charitable organizations with more than $8 billion in assets that fund programs from global development and education to the performing arts.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester sent a letter to the presidents of both Stanford and Dartmouth charging that he project “uses Montana elections as a political laboratory experiment, at the expense of free and fair judicial elections in our state.”

Tester also asked Chief Postal Inspector Guy Cottrell to investigate whether the fliers broke federal laws against deceptive mailings.

Montana election officials are sensitive to campaign mailers after going through three consecutive election cycles of dark-money groups leafletting the state with ads attacking candidates.

The issue is particularly touchy when it comes to Montana’s judicial elections. They are nonpartisan, meaning that candidates cannot identify themselves as part of a political party as a means 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.

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