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Political Scientists in Hot Water over Field Research

An experiment by political science researchers at Stanford and Dartmouth Universities is raising hackles in Montana. Three political science professors may have broken Montana state election laws, calling into question the ethics of performing research experiments with the potential to affect election results.

As part of the study, mailers containing information on the ideological leanings of four nonpartisan candidates for Montana State’s Supreme Court were sent to 100,000 Montana voters. The research project was intended to test whether voter turnout will increase in nonpartisan elections if voters receive more information about a candidate’s political leaning. The mailer, entitled “2014 Montana General Election Voter Information Guide,” features the official state seal and ranks the judicial candidates on an ideological spectrum from President Barack Obama on the liberal end, to former presidential candidate Mitt Romney on the conservative end. Similar mailers were sent to voters in California and New Hampshire, although there has not been a backlash in those areas.

A main source of contention among Montanans seems to be the use of the Great Seal of Montana on the mailers. The presence of the seal gives the impression that the Montana government was involved in distributing the flyer, and use of the Great Seal without permission of the office of the Secretary of State is in violation of state election law. Linda McCulloch, Montana’s Secretary of State, has filed a legal complaint charging that the mailers violated three additional Montana state campaign laws: 1) a ban on “fraudulent contrivance” that could cause a person to vote a certain way; 2) a prohibition on the dissemination of information that gives incorrect or misleading election procedures; and 3) a requirement that a person or group engaging in political activity register with the state [1]. Montana Senator Jon Tester also weighed in on the issue, sending a letter to Presidents at both universities, accusing their institutions of treating Montana’s elections as a “political laboratory experiment, at the expense of free and fair judicial elections” [2].

Jon Krosnick, professor of political science, communications, and psychology at Stanford, commented on the ethics of performing field research in politics saying, “As appealing as this might be on scientific grounds, the real question is whether it’s appropriate to interfere in this way” [3].

In a joint letter addressed to the voters and citizens of Montana, Presidents Philip Hanlon of Dartmouth, and John Hennessy of Stanford apologized for the confusion and concern raised by the mailer, stating that “the mailer was not affiliated with any political party, candidate or organization, and was not intended to influence any race” [4]. The letter also states that both Stanford and Dartmouth officials are investigating whether research rules of the institutions were followed. It acknowledges that although Dartmouth’s IRB had reviewed the research proposal, Stanford’s had not, which is in violation of university policy.

[1]http://thewpsa.wordpress.com/2014/10/25/messing-with-montana-get-out-the-vote-experiment-raises-ethics-questions/

[2] http://billingsgazette.com/tester-s-letter-to-stanford-and-dartmouth/pdf_79c534eb-75ed-50f8-9c67-883e7beb6fa4.html

[3]http://chronicle.com/article/DartmouthStanford/149687/

[4]http://chronicle.com/items/biz/pdf/Letter%20to%20Montana%20voters%206%20pm%20draft.pdf

This article is part of the Fall 2014 issue of Professional Ethics Report (PER). PER, which has been in publication since 1988, reports on news and events, programs and activities, and resources related to professional ethics issues, with a particular focus on those professions whose members are engaged in scientific research and its applications.