Stanford University is investigating an independent academic research study conducted by Stanford and Dartmouth College political science professors who sent official-looking informational mailers to 100,000 Montana voters just weeks before Election Day.
Adorned with the state of Montana seal, the mailers -- titled "2014 Montana General Election Voter Information Guide" -- ranked the four nonpartisan Montana Supreme Court candidates in this year's election on a scale from liberal to conservative. Fine print identifies the mailer as part of a research project into voter participation.
Montana Secretary of State Linda McCulloch filed a complaint with the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices on Friday, alleging that Stanford and Dartmouth political scientists broke four laws by sending the election mailers.
"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 wrote in the complaint.
The three campaign laws the informational mailers are accused of violating are:
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 the mailer violated a law prohibiting the impersonation of a public servant.
The research study -- which was undertaken to learn whether, if voters have more information about candidates, those voters will be more likely to participate in the process -- was also conducted in New Hampshire and California.
In September, 66,000 voters in one congressional district in New Hampshire received informational mailers. This week, 100,000 voters in Montana received election information, and candidate information was sent to 143,000 voters in two congressional districts in California (the 4th and 25th).
The study is further described by the Stanford and Dartmouth political science researchers on their website.
Both universities apologized Tuesday for the mailer delivered to voters in the 4th and 25th Congressional Districts of California, and acknowledged that the election mailer should have been more clearly presented as a research tool.
"On behalf of Stanford and Dartmouth universities, we sincerely apologize for any confusion or concern caused by an election mailer recently sent to voters in California's 4th and 25th Congressional Districts from Stanford and Dartmouth researchers as part of an academic research study," Stanford President John Hennessy and Dartmouth President Philip Hanlon said in a statement.
"We recognize that the purpose of elections is to enable our democratic systems to operate, and that no research study should risk disrupting an election. We genuinely regret that it was sent and we ask voters to ignore the mailer."
Stanford and Dartmouth are investigating the matter, including whether university research rules and standards have been appropriately followed, according to a Stanford press release.
"We do know that the research proposal was not submitted to Stanford's Institutional Review Board for approval, which is a clear violation of university policy," the release states.