Out-of State Universities Seek to Influence MT Elections, Call it “Academic Experiment”

Send Deceptive Mailers Posed as Official State Voter Guide Linking Non-Partisan Candidates with Obama

Some troubling information has come to light today.  Stanford and Dartmouth universities have appartently produced a fake “voter guide” to instruct Montana voters to make a partisan decision on the non-partisan MT Supreme Court race.

The mailers, which are posted at the Flathead Memo here, also use the Montana State seal to provide the (false) impression that the mailing is an official state publication and paint our non-partisan supreme court candidates on a spectrum of who is most like Obama and who is not.  The Flathead Memo’s James Conner writes that the mailer:

resents information in a way that invites voters to conclude that researchers at two of America’s most prestigious universities want them to know that Mike Wheat is a very liberal man; almost as liberal as that black devil in the White House. Given the context, only a fool would conclude the card is intended to help Wheat.

The schools claim that the fliers are part of a study “on the impact of information about candidate positioning on turnout and ballot roll-off” in nonpartisan elections.

There are serious ethical problems with using our elections as a science experiment.  I’ve detailed some of them here:

1.  First, it simply not ethical to deliberately seek to influence the outcome of our elections to “see what happens” as a school political science experiment. The Montana Supreme Court race is our state’s most important statewide race this election cycle – and the outcome of the race could shift the balance of the court as a whole.

I suppose these professors from California and New Hampshire may think their little experiment is quite interesting.  They may think it is okay meddle in our elections because we live “out in the middle of nowhere,” because we don’t make a lot of money, and because we have a small population.  But these are our lives.  This is our Supreme Court. And it’s wrong to to use an election that has profound impacts on the lives of the people of our state as an academic experiment.

The Montana Supreme Court makes decisions that have real and very serious consequences – decisions about whether women have a constitutional right to medical privacy, whether discriminatory marriage and anti-equality laws will be allowed to stand, and on our constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment.  We live here, and we have to live with the decisions our Supreme Court makes.

2. Here in Montana, we the people have decided as a state that we want our Supreme Court elections to be non-partisan.  Apparently, Stanford and Dartmouth decided that the research questions of some of the professors at these schools outweighed the concerns Montanans had with partisan elections.

The Cowgirl Blog has obtained information on the research aims of this deceptive and unethical meddling.  It looks like the plan was to give our non-partisan candidates a partisan score, then to study the impact on turnout and outcome of making our non-partisan races partisan.  I guess they don’t care what we really think.  They probably think of us as a measly amount of inconsequential people in a flyover state.  Summary here.  Longer research paper here. 

It is unethical for these out-of-state universities to decide to paint our non-partisan candidates in a partisan light as an experiment to see what happens when our wishes as a state for non-partisan elections are violated.  Putting non-partisan races on a partisan spectrum also of course influences electoral outcomes, by making them more likely to come out along traditional partisan lines.

3. The third concern here is that is unethical for these universities to conduct their little experiment by disguising it as an official state publication, plastered with the Official State Seal of Montana.   Montana’s Commissioner of Political Practices and Montana’s Secretary of State today called for an official investigation into the deceptive mailers. 

4. Apparently, the political scientists at Stanford and Dartmouth do not comprehend the impact of taking a non-partisan race in a conservative leaning state and painting one of the candidates as about as close to Obama as you can get and the other candidate as less like Obama–when Obama polls at 20% or whatever in this state.

If there is truly any political science professor anywhere who doesn’t understand how doing this will impact the outcome of an election, they should be immediately fired.  And predictably (by everyone except the imbeciles behind this “experiment”), the Montana Republican party, which has sued to make our Supreme Court races more partisan, is already touting how helpful these mailings are to their goals. 

5. There are also several questionable elements to the mailing–elements which are not particularly credible or scholarly and call into question whether the piece can actually be considered with a straight face part of any legitimate academic exercise.

First, according to information Cowgirl tipsters obtained from the U.S. post office, the bulk mail permit used to send these mailers belonged to:

 Progressive Direct Mail Advertising, Inc
2089 West 2300 South
Salt Lake City, UT  84119

For a mailing on behalf of an entity called:

Everest College
3280 West 3500 South, Suite A
Salt Lake City, UT  84119

If the mailings were really from Stanford and Dartmouth, why did they come from Everest College, which is part of an online for-profit education conglomerate and the subject of a recent federal bailout scandal. 

6. There are a couple of reasons this mailing is clearly intended to influence and elections and not provide academic assistance to voters. Urging Montanans to “Take this to the polls” on “Election Date: November 4, 2014” clearly makes this an electoral mailing and not a public service mailing.

There is also something odd about to whom the mailing was sent.  I’ve talked to several tipsters whose households received multiple copies.  When you get non-householded political mail like this, you often finds it comes from an unethical  mail house consultant who is billing on a per-piece basis. Which is something a consultant is only incentivized to do with mailing lists that are very very large in size – much larger than would be needed for an academic study sample size. UPDATE:  I’m told that Stanford now admits it sent 100,000 mailers in the Supreme Court race.  That’s a $50,000 dollar mailing injected into a race where both candidates have raised under $200k.

7. Another question that hasn’t been answered is whether and how montanans4justice.com part of the project.  This site uses the same “how much is a candidate like Obama” theme – only it uses little pictures of the candidates heads (note how close Wheat’s head is placed to Obama’s.  My question is whether this site is part of the Stanford and Dartmouth “study” and if not who is paying for it.

Finally, it needs to be disclosed who paid for these mailings.  Were they funded by the universities directly?  Through grants?   Who funded the grants? The people of Montana deserve to know.

 UPDATE: Those behind the mailer are fellows with the right-wing Hoover Institution, which is affiliated with Stanford.



11 Comments on "Out-of State Universities Seek to Influence MT Elections, Call it “Academic Experiment”"

  1. Larry Kralj, Environmental Rangers | October 23, 2014 6:52 PM at 6:52 PM |

    This is bad, very bad. Kockh donations to the schools maybe? I’m sure of it. NEVER heard of anything like this before, and I’m an old guy.

  2. Great investigative work here.

  3. Thank you Cowgirl tipsters – as usual, you are all invaluable. There would be no blog without you!

  4. I expect this kind of skanky antic from some Super PAC or dark money source, not prestigious universities. Anyway, here’s the email I sent to the lead researcher for this Stanford “experiment” and the presidents of both institutions:

    Mr. Bonica,

    Just received your flyer for the Montana Supreme Court races. It is perhaps the most fraudulent, inaccurate campaign mailer I’ve ever seen (which is saying a lot in these days of negative ads and dark money). I see numerous violations of Montana campaign law. These are nonpartisan races, for Christ’s sake. What were you thinking?

    Plus, I’d love to see your methodology: Romney is more moderate than Obama? Wheat is just slightly to the right of Obama, who is to the left of Lenin? Rice’s politics are about the same as Romney’s? Criteria, please. I’ve been told that Stanford is the Harvard of the West. Ha! You have indeed sullied Stanford’s reputation. Montanans are not guinea pigs and we take our supreme court race very seriously. May you pay dearly for this campaign research fiasco.

    Peter Talbot

    CC: President Hennessy
    President Hanlon

  5. Pete this is a great letter – thanks for posting it here.

  6. You’re doing fantastic reporting here. Thank you.

  7. In case anyone else wants to email Mr. Bonica, here is his address bonica@stanford.edu

  8. Greg Strandberg has the full contact info posted of the top 4 people involved if you want to write to them.

  9. You are all sharp, and interested..and awesome…!! Thank you for being so.

  10. Cowgirl if I wasn’t already wore out and put to pasture I’d ask you to marry me! You always get me excited and worked up, about politics, and break stories the other “news” doesn’t touch. thanks dear heart.

  11. The domain was bought through Go daddy, and they spent the cash to make themselves not Known. apparently it was bought through Go Daddy last Month 2014-09-03. There is an Abuse call line for the site at Go Daddy 1-480-624-2505. I suggest we call it and see if we can find out more about: MONTANANS4JUSTICE.COM

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