Political study spurs controversy in Montana

by Erica Buonanno | 10/29/14 6:46pm

For the past week, Dartmouth and Stanford University have been embroiled in controversy over a research project that has potentially affected Montana’s upcoming Supreme Court elections by implying the nonpartisan candidates had party affiliations. Last week, Montana Secretary of State Linda McCulloch filed a complaint, as an individual, against the project’s three researchers — Dartmouth government professor Kyle Dropp and Stanford professors Adam Bonica and Jonathan Rodden— for interfering with the election and improperly using Montana’s state seal.

The professors sent the flier, titled “2014 Montana General Election Voter Information Guide,” to 100,000 Montana residents. In response to the complaint, Dartmouth and Stanford are sending apologies asking recipients to disavow the election mailers, incurring a $52,000 cost.

Dartmouth’s Institutional Review Board, which approves research projects, approved the study, while Stanford’s had not.

The letter acknowledges that the research proposal was not submitted to Stanford’s review board, violating the university’s policy.

Similar fliers were also distributed to around 210,000 voters in California and New Hampshire, though the project has not sparked controversy in those states.

The experiment aimed to ascertain whether voters given more information would be likelier to vote.

Montana commissioner Jonathan Motl, to whom McCulloch sent the complaint, said that academic institutions that want to do research during elections should check state election laws and request an advisory opinion from the political practices commission.

He said Montana residents are sensitive to campaign practice issues, especially after the advocacy group American Tradition Partnership defied state campaign finance laws, spurring a legal battle ultimately settled by the U.S. Supreme Court.

“We haven’t seen anything like this by an academic institution, in a political base, in the history of Montana that I’m aware of,” he said. “But if you’re asking how Stanford or Dartmouth is going to be treated, they’re going to be treated as a corporation and the activity will be viewed in the lens of corporate activity in a political campaign in Montana.”

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., wrote in a statement that academic institutions cannot use Montana’s elections as a “political laboratory experiment.”

“This so-called ‘research project’ comes at the cost of fair judicial elections in our state,” he wrote. “I appreciate the apologies from the institutions, but nothing can undo the impact that these mailers have already had on Montana voters.”

Tester sent a public letter to the presidents of Dartmouth and Stanford calling the experiment “voter manipulation,” and cited the state’s history of passing laws that reduce outside influence on campaigns. While the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United negated these measures, opening the state to corporate maneuvering, Tester said in the letter that it is “deeply troubling” to see academics engage in similar behavior.

Montana attorney and visiting Vermont Law School professor Jack Tuholske said the election mailers’ attempt to place Supreme Court justices in ideological camps when the state’s judicial elections are not partisan is “despicable.”

“I don’t care what sophisticated methods the professors used,” he said. “If they would come out of their ivory tower and open their eyes and see the practicalities in a state like Montana, putting a Supreme Court justice who has a very complicated record on a card next to Barack Obama is tampering with the election because Obama is not well liked in Montana and this is just guilt by association.”

According to McCulloch’s complaint, the political science research project may have violated four sections of Montana law, including the unlawful impersonation of a public servant and the dissemination of misleading election information.

Montana’s political practices commission will pursue an investigation and both academic institutions will be making internal inquiries, Dartmouth spokesperson Justin Anderson said.

Stanford spokesperson Lisa Lapin said in a statement that the study was nonpartisan and not designed to favor any candidate or affect the election.

Dropp, Bonica and Rodden funded the project with a grant from the Hewlett Foundation. Foundation spokesperson Heath Wickline wrote in a statement that the foundation provided an unrestricted $250,000 grant to the Stanford Spatial Social Science Lab, which then used the money for the study.

“We had no control over any research or projects conducted by the lab,” he wrote. “As Stanford University has said, the project in question appears to have violated the University’s internal review process and they are conducting a formal investigation. We will await the results of that investigation before commenting further.”

Stanford also provided $100,000 in funding. Motl estimated that the project cost around $80,000, Talking Points Memo reported.

To get approval from Dartmouth’s review board, researchers submit forms to the a human subjects protection committee.

“Simply put, the Institutional Review Board is reviewing research from the standpoint of protecting human subjects, so when they are reviewing research they are looking at the risks that may be posed to humans in terms of safety as well as privacy or confidentiality,” Anderson wrote.

The board assigns studies a designation based on the level of risk participants face, and, depending on this category, different committee members review the projects.

If a research project is deemed less risky, individuals with relevant expertise will review it. Projects with a moderate level of risk are reviewed by the board’s chair, while those generating higher potential risks require a full committee review and a vote on approval, Anderson said.

Motl said that although the independent study received Dartmouth IRB approval, the flyers have influenced Montana residents.

“The question for the Dartmouth community is, ‘exactly what did that review board review and approve,’ because I think the people of Montana would question whether or not that review board ever saw this particular document — my judgment is it doesn’t pass any inspection for an academic piece of work.”

Dropp, Bonica and Rodden did not respond to requests for comment by press time.