Today, the Internet exploded with news about and reactions to a get-out-the-vote field experiment fielded by three political science professors that may have broken Montana state law and, at a minimum, called into question the ethics of conducting experiments that might impact election results. No stranger to such controversy myself—a postage experiment I conducted with some colleagues in November 2010 (Michelson et al 2012) raised the ire of one losing candidate and generated some unpleasant media coverage—I am sympathetic to the idea that the researchers meant no harm. But harm has indeed been done, to the experiments subfield and to the discipline more broadly, if not to the people of Montana.
First, let’s review the facts. Adam Bonica and Jonathan Rodden, Political Science professors and fellows at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, along with Dartmouth Political Scientist Kyle Dropp, obtained $250,000 from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and a matching $100,000 grant from Stanford University to conduct the experiment. According to Stanford spokeswoman Lisa Lapin, the project was approved by the Dartmouth Institutional Review Board (IRB).
The experiment was conducted in three states, including Montana (100,000 mailers), New Hampshire (66,000 mailers) and California (143,000 mailers). The mailers sent to Montana voters, where the controversy is raging, included the state seal and information about the ideological placement (compared to President Barack Obama and former Republican Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney) of candidates for two non-partisan elections to the Montana Supreme Court. The mailer was labeled “2014 Montana General Election Voter Information Guide.” The ideological placement of the judicial candidates is based on a methodology developed for Bonica’s dissertation research, using a large-scale database of campaign contributions. One of those judicial races, between incumbent Justice Mike Wheat and challenger Lawrence VanDyke, is hotly contested, and has seen significant outside spending.
Using the state seal without permission may have violated Montana election law, which states that it is a misdemeanor to “knowingly or purposely disseminate to any elector information about election procedures that is incorrect or misleading or gives the impression that the information has been officially disseminated by an election administrator.”
In addition to a charge of violating that law, Secretary of State Linda McCulloch has filed a legal complaint charging that the mailers also violate three 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.
U.S. Senator Jon Tester sent a strongly worded letter to the presidents of Stanford and Dartmouth on October 24 that began, “As I am sure you are now aware, Montanans recently received a misleading campaign flier in their mailboxes that sought to inject partisanship into non-partisan Montana Supreme Court elections.” Tester goes on to denounce the “so-called research project,” and adds, “Efforts to undermine elections in Montana – whether by fraud or merely by poorly-designed experiments – must not be tolerated.”
To me, this is more important than the possible violations of election and campaign law, which perhaps will result in the Bonica team paying some fines. The grouping together of fraud and experiments, and the interpretation of the mailers as an effort to undermine the Montana elections, illustrates the true price that is being paid in terms of public perceptions of political science experiments, if not the broader discipline.
Montanans are sensitive to outside groups coming to their state trying to influence elections. One of the top stories of the year in 2012 was the “dark money”—money whose sources and donors don’t have to be disclosed, thanks to Citizens United—that flooded the state with television ads and mailers. This followed scandals in the previous two election cycles, 2008 and 2010, of illegal coordination between funders and candidates by Western Tradition Partnership.
The sordid details of those previous dark-money scandals set the backdrop to Montanans’ outrage at the idea that an outside source was coming in to try to influence their election; the Bonica group blundered in not anticipating how that context might color reaction to their mailers.
Was the experiment ethical? The Bonica team chose to experiment with non-partisan Montana judicial races, as opposed to legislative races where ideology and partisanship often play a visible role, inserting partisanship (by placing the judicial candidates on a continuum with Obama and Romney) in a place where many think it does not belong. 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. An interesting research question? Perhaps. But just because something is interesting doesn’t mean you should do the experiment.
Another ethics issue arises from the closeness of the election, and the possibility that the content of the mailers might have influenced the outcome. To maximize external validity, experimenters logically want to conduct their research in real elections. But should such experiments, particularly persuasion experiments, be conducted in contexts where they might determine outcomes? This is precisely the sort of experimentation that raises eyebrows about the ethics of doing work outside of laboratories or without informed consent. Dawn Teele claims in Field Experiments and Their Critics (2012: 119) that ethical field research requires that the research itself leave no trace.
Just last year, the Coburn Amendment struck a major blow to political science National Science Foundation grants. Political science was dismissed as wasteful and not in the national interest. Experiments that strike the public as unethical, possibly illegal, and deceptive, are harmful to our image as a discipline and will make it more difficult for future studies to obtain funding and IRB approval. Intentionally or not, these researchers are guilty of damaging the field.
Melissa R. Michelson is a professor of political science at Menlo College. She holds a Ph.D. from Yale University. Her publications Living the Dream: New Immigration Policies and the Lives of Undocumented Latino Youth (Paradigm Publishers, 2014) and Mobilizing Inclusion: Transforming the Electorate Through Get-Out-the-Vote Campaigns (Yale University Press, 2012).