Professor Bertrall Ross is having a moment.

With the midterm elections coming up, Ross, who studies and teaches constitutional and elections law at the University of Virginia School of Law, has been increasingly fielding media calls about flaws he sees with the democratic project in the United States.

Behind the scenes, the Justice Thurgood Marshall Distinguished Professor of Law is taking one of his research ideas and betting he can put together a team to fix at least some of those issues; specifically, the way low-income voters have been inadvertently shut out of the voting process because of how campaigns use voter history data.

“When they’re canvassing, they target those houses with people who are most likely to vote and likely to vote for their candidate, which makes sense if you’re a budget-constrained campaign trying to use your resources most efficiently to secure the most votes you can,” Ross said. “But that results in this contact gap between more wealthy and poor people, because those with low income tend not to vote.”

Ross and a co-author, University of Colorado law professor Douglas M. Spencer, outlined this theory — and why it matters — in “Voter Data, Democratic Inequality, and the Risk of Political Violence,” a paper published in the Cornell Law Review in August.

Voter outreach has become more crucial as mass-media advertising has become obsolete, Ross argued, because that face-to-face conversation might be the only opportunity a low-income voter has to learn when and where to vote, and how the ballot issues and candidates’ positions will affect their lives. In fact, one study found that face-to-face canvassing increased turnout by nearly 10 percent.

Conversely, because voting is often logistically difficult for low-income voters, the lack of contact from a campaign decreases the likelihood of them voting in the next election, and so on, Ross said. That “vicious cycle” then leads to their needs going ignored because there are no electoral consequences for shutting them out, Ross argues.

Moreover, that sense of alienation can lead to political violence when the marginalized feel they no longer have a voice in the decisions being made. A Washington Post analysis cited in Ross’ paper looked at 125 people arrested for breaking into the Capitol during the Jan. 6 insurrection; of those, nearly 60% had histories of financial struggles, from unpaid taxes to bankruptcy and foreclosure.

“So how do we make it rational for campaigns to use resources in ways that might reduce alienation and marginalization,” Ross asked, rhetorically. “You can imagine a voucher system that gives low-propensity voters cash vouchers they can give to campaigns that contact them. Would that change the campaign’s calculation, knowing that they might not only earn a vote, but they might also earn money for their campaign by identifying and targeting these individuals?”

After laying out the idea in his paper, Ross will now be exploring the use of vouchers and other incentive systems as part of his upcoming Designing Democracy: Participation lab course sponsored this spring by UVA Law’s Karsh Center for Law and Democracy, which Ross co-directs with Professor Micah Schwartzman ’05.

In September, Ross hired two student fellows to collect the research the lab students will need. The fellows will be gathering data on voter participation rates at the federal, state and international levels, reviewing social science articles about the reasons behind turnout, and collecting legal materials that include voter-qualification statutes and regulations.

In the course, eight lab students will identify patterns of problems based on the fellows’ earlier research and begin proposing solutions through model legislation. Next fall’s lab students will lobby for the model legislation at the state and federal levels.

The Karsh Center at the Law School was established in 2018 as part of a record $44 million gift from Martha ’81 and Bruce Karsh ’80. The center is now one of six autonomous UVA programs affiliated with the Karsh Institute of Democracy, which was also established through a gift from the Karshes. Melody Barnes, the institute’s executive director and a senior fellow with the Karsh Center, leads discussions among the programs to identify opportunities for collaboration, Ross said.

“Say there’s a state like Virginia that’s interested in taking up one of these proposals, then the idea would be to partner with the State and Local Government Policy Clinic here at UVA Law, which has been involved in legislative implementation to consider ways to implement our proposal,” Ross said.

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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