Wal-Mart's perverse voter-registration campaign could hurt its beloved GOP.

Commentary about business and finance.
Oct. 6 2006 4:50 PM

Wal-Mart Voters

The GOP-leaning retailer is encouraging employees to vote. Will that help the Democrats?

Last Friday, Wal-Mart announced it was starting a campaign to encourage its 1.3 million associates to register to vote and participate in the electoral process. Wal-Mart is hiring politicos from the left (Charles Baker) and right (Terry Nelson) to help, and the company is providing workers with voter-registration and education materials.

Critics will assume that this is yet another attempt by Wal-Mart to stack the deck in favor of its favorite political party: the GOP. As the Center for Responsive Politics noted, Wal-Mart has given more than $1 million in federal campaign donations in this cycle, with 71 percent going to Republicans. And Wal-Mart itself is a lot like the contemporary Republican Party—strong in the South, Midwest, Sunbelt, and Great Plains, weak in the cities and coastal areas, and steadfastly hostile to organized labor. The company has also been less than subtle in letting employees know what it thinks about certain politicians. As the Financial Times noted, "In August, Wal-Mart distributed a letter to its employees in Iowa and three other states, highlighting what it said were inaccuracies in criticism by Gov. Tom Vilsack, as well as Sens. Evan Bayh of Indiana and Joseph Biden of Delaware and New Mexico's Gov. Bill Richardson." (Democrats, all.) Wal-Mart also promised employees it would "keep you informed about what these political candidates are saying about your company while on the campaign trail."

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But with Wal-Mart, the politico-economic issues are never as simple as they seem, as former Kerry adviser Jason Furman has argued. It is safe to assume that most senior officers of the company are Republicans, although their numbers now include top flack Leslie Dach, a former Democratic political operative. But what about its vast army of associates? If Wal-Mart encourages them to vote and brings some marginal voters to the ballot box in the process, it could be doing Democrats a huge favor.

Wal-Mart's diversity data shows that the company's workforce, and in particular its vast army of sales associates, looks an awful lot like the Democratic base.

It is disproportionately African-American. African-Americans are about 11 percent of the American population and vote overwhelmingly for Democrats. According to this CNN exit poll, they went for Kerry by an 88-11 margin in 2004. But African-Americans constitute nearly 17 percent of Wal-Mart's employees and 18 percent of sales workers. Encouraging more middle- and lower-income African-Americans to vote in states like Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Mississippi would almost certainly be a net positive for Democratic candidates.

We know, as well, that women tend to vote disproportionately for Democrats. In 2004, according to CNN, women (and working women) voted for Kerry by a 51-48 margin. Women are substantially overrepresented in Wal-Mart's workforce. About 60 percent of all employees are women. And three-quarters of its sales workers are female—a higher proportion than at other retailers. All things being equal, more women voting will boost Democratic candidates.

Finally, Wal-Mart's workforce is disproportionately composed of lower-income workers. Barbara Ehrenreich says Wal-Mart's mean wage is $9.68 an hour, which comes out to about $20,000 a year on a full-time basis. In 2004, again according to CNN, those with incomes under $15,000 voted for John Kerry by a 63-36 margin, and those with incomes in the $15,000-$30,000 range voted for Kerry by a 57-42 margin. More lower-income Americans, many of whom are women and African-American, voting would benefit Democratic candidates.

Now, if Wal-Mart's workers all suffer from false consciousness and, a la Thomas Frank's Kansans, reliably vote against their own economic interests, then Wal-Mart's efforts to get them to the polls could help Republicans. But if the African-American, female, and low-wage workers who toil at Wal-Mart tend to vote the way other African-American, female, and low-wage workers who toil elsewhere tend to vote, then Wal-Mart's efforts will be a boon to Democrats.

Another possibility is that by encouraging employees to vote and making it clear which party it generally supports, Wal-Mart is unduly pressuring its employees to vote for Republicans. But unless Wal-Mart goons accompany associates into the ballot box, it's hard to see how that would work. Wal-Mart employees may not have been successful in organizing unions, but they don't simply take whatever the company dishes out without resisting. Lots of them show the ultimate form of resistance to pressure from their employer: Every year, about 40 percent of them quit.

Daniel Gross is a longtime Slate contributor. His most recent book is Better, Stronger, Faster. Follow him on Twitter.

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