Illegal Political Mailers Sent to 100,000 Montana Voters

Mailers that placed candidates for the Montana Supreme Court justice race on ideological continuums with Barack Obama and Mitt Romney as reference points were recently sent out to 100,000 Montana registered voters. The mailers were part of a research project led by political science professors Adam Bonica and Jonathan Rodden of Stanford University and Kyle Dropp of Dartmouth University. The research was meant to test whether potential voters who see ideological continuums featuring election candidates will be more likely to vote. However, the mailers very quickly led to an ongoing controversy regarding the motives of the research project as well as its potential impact on the election.

On Oct. 24, Secretary of State Linda McCulloch filed a complaint alleging that the Stanford and Dartmouth professors broke four laws with the mailers as they were titled “2014 Montana General Election Voter Information Guide” and illegally featured the State Seal of Montana. The Montana commissioner of political practices Jonathan Motl is currently investigating the project and has asked Stanford and Dartmouth to disavow the mailers. Stanford and Dartmouth recently sent out a joint open letter to each of the 100,000 Montanans who received the mailers apologizing for the incident. Both universities, as well as the State of Montana, are investigating the research project.

The most controversial aspect of the mailers is that they injected partisanship into an officially nonpartisan judicial election. Stanford spokeswoman Lisa Lapin said the research project was meant to determine whether more information about election candidates would lead to greater voter participation, but that she did not know why the researchers chose to include information about the partisanship of candidates in a nonpartisan election. According to the Western Political Science Association’s blog, “The tradition of a non-partisan, independent judiciary has deep roots in the West, stemming from the Progressive Era; regardless of whether or not laws were broken, the mailers blatantly violated that tradition.”

Due to the characteristic tendency of candidates to focus on highlighting the negative aspects of their opponents’ campaign rather than the positive aspects of their own, partisan politics are almost always a hindrance to the democratic election process. Many candidates, and likewise voters, focus more on partisanship than on the real issues at hand, demoting the real issues as secondary to party affiliation, which ultimately amounts to the branding of candidates. This branding, whether one is a liberal or a conservative, a Democrat or a Republican, has no place in a nonpartisan judicial election that seeks to elect independent justices, yet that is exactly what the mailers did.

In a letter sent out to the presidents of Stanford and Dartmouth regarding the mailers, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester from Montana said, “Efforts to undermine elections in Montana — whether by fraud or merely by poorly-designed experiments — must not be tolerated.” Surely this experiment was poorly designed, as it broke four Montana laws, but the real question is whether it had an underlying motive to undermine the election. Bonica, one of the researchers who created the mailers, is also the co-founder of the new Silicon Valley startup CrowdPAC, which is a for-profit company that plans to make money by selling data compiled with algorithms for quantitative measurements of specific candidates’ political ideologies. The data is intended to be of interest to Super PACs and other political organizations that seek to know very specific information about political candidates, such as the candidate’s opinion on specific tax laws or environmental conservation, in order to allocate campaign money to those candidates who most closely align with each organization. Many are questioning whether Bonica’s motives for the project lie within the academic research domain or if the project was a way for him to promote his new company. Either way, with the level of outrage that Montanans have expressed, along with the negative publicity the project has received on a national level, it is clear that mistakes were made.

The project has even brought up significant questions about the nature of political science research. Some political science research is retroactive in the sense that it analyzes data from past elections and campaigns in order to assess voter and candidate behavior. However, an increasing portion of political science research is proactive, introducing experiments into real elections as they take place. This proactive political science research has the potential to significantly alter voter and candidate behavior, and in states like Montana where the voter population is relatively low and the experiment population is relatively high, proactive research could even sway an election. We must not let proactive political science research influence the decisions we make on Election Day. We must not let proactive political science research be a detriment to our democratic election process.