HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Researchers at Stanford University and Dartmouth College broke Montana laws when they sent mailers about the state's two Supreme Court races to more than 100,000 voters in 2014, Montana's campaign regulator said Tuesday.
The postcards sent in October ranked Montana's nonpartisan judicial candidates on an ideological scale from liberal to conservative, comparing them to President Barack Obama at one end and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney at the other.
Montana Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl says the mailers amounted to election advocacy, which requires disclosure of spending and contributions under the state's campaign laws.
"I think this hit a nerve because it was from Dartmouth and Stanford, two very, very respected institutions, and yet it was so voter-focused," Motl said. "It was unexpected, I think, that those two institutions would engage in something like this."
The commissioner's office received hundreds of informal complaints from people who received the postcards and an investigation began after Montana Secretary of State Linda McColloch filed a formal complaint on Oct. 24, Motl said.
The mailers sent by political science researchers Jonathan Rodden and Adam Bonica of Stanford, along with Kyle Dropp of Dartmouth, also displayed the Montana seal, which Motl said misled recipients to believe they came from the state.
School officials have said the project aimed to study whether additional information about candidates could affect voter turnout, though they acknowledged the materials were not properly submitted for review.
Stanford University spokeswoman Lisa Lapin said Tuesday the university research project is protected by the First Amendment, and no election laws were violated.
"The information in the mailer did not contain any advocacy supporting or opposing any candidate and explicitly stated that it 'is nonpartisan and does not endorse any candidate or party,' " Lapin said in statement Tuesday.
Dartmouth College spokeswoman Diana Lawrence said her school also disagrees with Motl's findings. Dartmouth plans to improve its review process by adding an attorney to a social science review board to determine whether research projects raise any legal issues, she said.
At the state's request, the presidents of both universities mailed a letter of apology shortly before the Nov. 4 election to every one of the 102,780 Montana addresses where the mailers were sent.
Motl hired Carroll College political science professor Jeremy Johnson to analyze whether the researchers followed the proper procedures and included a summary of Johnson's analysis in the report.
"The most appalling aspect for many voters, the intent to manipulate vote totals that could potentially change the outcome of an election, was absent as a consideration in the process," Johnson wrote.
Motl has turned his findings over to a prosecutor for review. If the prosecutor chooses not to take the case, the matter will go back to Motl to either file a civil action or negotiate a settlement with the schools.