Secretary of State, Political Practices Commissioner Speak Out on “Deceitful Political Mailers”
An election season mailer purporting to be a "Voter Information Guide" has spawned complaints to the Montana Office of Political Practices and a public address from the Montana Secretary of State.
On the front of the mailer is a diagram portraying Montana Supreme Court candidates Lawrence Van Dyke, W. David Herbert, and Jim Rice as either nearly as conservative or more conservative than Mitt Romney. Meanwhile, candidate Mike Wheat is portrayed to be nearly as liberal as Barack Obama.
"That brochure has spiked complaints in this office," said Political Practices Commissioner Jonathan Motl, "We have now received more complaints about this particular mailing than anything else in the 2014 political cycle."
So far the mailer has triggered at least 20 complains, typically, the office would receive one or two complaints on any particular issue.
The mailer (pictured above and below) appears to be manufactured to appear like material sent from the Secretary of State's office, although the fine print says otherwise.
"This brochure [...] is only defensible under an aggressive interpretation of first amendment election speech," said Motl. "It certainly triggers the other concern, which is that it is unfair, misleading, deceptive, and inappropriate."
Fine print on the flyer leads readers to a Stanford/Dartmouth research project known as the "Database on Ideology, Money in Politics, and Elections" or DIME. The flyer also includes a website link to the DIME project where one can find the following disclaimer:
If you received a flyer regarding candidate positioning in Montana or California, it is part of joint Stanford/Dartmouth academic study on the impact of information about candidate positioning on turnout and ballot roll-off in congressional primaries, judicial elections, and other contests where voters are unable to distinguish between candidates on the basis of partisan affiliation.
Motl said that most of the complaints to his office have regarded the use of the Great Seal of Montana. However, the illegal act, if there is one, involves more than just the use of the Seal.
"If there is something 'wrong' about it in a technical legal sense, that an action could be brought against the party sending out this particular election communication, it would be because they are unfairly and illegally portraying themselves as an official of the State of Montana by the use of the Seal, by the representation that it is an official voter guide, and by the instruction to take it into the poling place" Motl said. "I can tell you, it has hit a nerve with a lot of Montanans, they don't like somebody appropriating the Great Seal of the State of Montana for some sort of electioneering thing."
Motl said his office had made contact with Dartmouth and Stanford, but that they had not yet received a call back from the individuals that appear to have sent out the mailer. So far, an official decision on the mailer has not been published to the Political Practices website.
Interview with Jonathan Motl:
This isn't the first example of a mailer portraying to be a voter information guide either. In the Lawrence VanDyke/Mike Wheat Supreme Court race, another mailer sent out by the Montanans for Liberty and Justice also appears to portray itself as an official document from the Secretary of State's Office. Montanans for Liberty and Justice is a group that the Center for Public Integrity describes as "backed by Trial Lawyers."