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Schools apologizing for Montana election mailer

Montana officials are investigating whether mailers like the one shown violated laws by appearing to come from the state. The mailers are part of a Stanford University and Dartmouth College political science research project. (Associated Press)
Montana officials are investigating whether mailers like the one shown violated laws by appearing to come from the state. The mailers are part of a Stanford University and Dartmouth College political science research project. (Associated Press)
Matt Volz Associated Press

HELENA – The presidents of Stanford University and Dartmouth College are sending 100,000 letters to Montana residents disavowing election mailers that state officials called deceitful and worried will influence the state’s two Supreme Court elections.

The mailers were sent last week by political science faculty members at the universities conducting a research project. The mailers rated the four nonpartisan Montana Supreme Court candidates in next week’s election as liberal or conservative on a scale that compared them to President Barack Obama at one end and former Gov. Mitt Romney at the other.

The use of the state seal on the mailers caused state officials to worry about the effects of an official-looking document that injected partisan politics in a nonpartisan race.

The letters by Dartmouth president Philip Hanlon and Stanford president John Hennessy dated Tuesday apologized for the mailers and said no research study should risk disrupting an election.

“We genuinely regret that it was sent and we ask Montana voters to ignore the mailer,” the letter said.

The wording was agreed to by the schools, Montana Secretary of State Linda McCulloch and Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl. The letters were being printed and are expected to arrive before next Tuesday’s election to the same 100,000 people who received the original mailers.

The $52,000 cost for mailing the letters will be paid for by the schools, Motl said.

McCulloch said at a news conference that she believes the mailers were meant to influence the outcome of the state Supreme Court elections in favor of particular candidates.

An ongoing investigation by Motl’s office will look into where the money came from to pay for the mailers, why the researchers chose Montana, why they didn’t consult with the state first, and why they didn’t go through the proper protocols the university uses to approve research projects, McCulloch said.

The aim of the study was to find out whether providing more information about the candidates to voters would improve voter turnout and the total number of votes cast in the state Supreme Court elections.

Former state solicitor general Lawrence VanDyke is challenging incumbent Justice Mike Wheat, and Billings attorney W. David Herbert is attempting to unseat Justice Jim Rice.

Stanford University spokeswoman Lisa Lapin said the project was funded with a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Besides Motl’s investigation, both schools are conducting their own inquiries.

“This has had the attention of the university at the highest levels and university leadership very much wanted to do this,” Lapin said of the letter.

Dartmouth spokesman Justin Anderson said the letter speaks for itself and declined to comment about the college’s internal review.

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