The State of U.S. Democracy: Wal-Mart to the Rescue!

How can Wal-Mart help in raising U.S. voter turnout?

October 26, 2000

How can Wal-Mart help in raising U.S. voter turnout?

[1] “Based on voter turnout data, the wealthier you are, the weightier your vote is. Each poor American is likely to receive only about half the representation of each wealthy American.”

[2] “The current state of affairs is eerily reminiscent of 19th century Prussia’s three-class voting system, where tax contributions and voting rights were formally linked. The more you paid in taxes, the more your vote counted in the ballot box.”

[3] “Democracy is about more than the mere right to vote. Participation also needs to be representative of all broad groups of the population. Recent trends raise serious questions about the emergence of a ‘feudalist democracy’ in the United States.”

[4] “In the United States, the ‘digital divide’ — the gap in Internet access according to household income — largely mirrors the ‘voter gap’ between rich and poor Americans.”

[5] “Different ways of raising voter turnout, such as motor registration and weekend voting have so far not been able to reverse the trend of declining participation. How about instituting an incentive-based system?”

[6] Anecdotal evidence suggests that home PC ownership and voter participation mirror each other. Could online voting booths in supermarkets help solve this problem?

[7] “Wal-Mart has already started initiatives to register voters, but can do more to help overcome the digital and voter divide. The next logical step would be to put online voting booths into Wal-Marts and other retailers — and to give people an incentive to use them.”

[8] According to a Wal-Mart press release, in two days, more than 10 million people pass through Wal-Mart stores. The majority of these people are not likely to have Internet access from their homes.

[9] “Given the 170 million eligible voters and assuming a record turnout of 70%, rewarding each voter with a $50 coupon would cost the government only about $6 billion per election.”

[10] “If defending the nation against outside threats is worth a Pentagon budget of $290 billion a year, then strengthening it from the inside should be worth $1.5 billion a year — less than two days of the U.S. defense budget.”

In 1996, less than half of all eligible U.S. voters went to the polls, the worst tally since the 1924 race between Calvin Coolidge and John Davis. It should give pause to U.S. policy makers and citizens alike that, in contrast, voter turnout in Russia’s still fledgling democracy reached 65% in the March 2000 presidential election. The United States has not reached this high a level in the last 80 years.

The fact that U.S. voter turnout is falling is serious enough in itself. But the picture gets even worse once you dig deeper into the statistics. The troubling trend is that poor people participate less than those with higher incomes.

The turnout rate among those with the lowest incomes, at 30%, is now less than half that of those with the highest incomes. And while overall voter turnout has fallen, from 61.9% in 1960 to 49% in 1996, turnout among the poorest citizens has fallen fastest, according to data from the Committee for the Study of the American electorate.[1]

As a result, in the upcoming election each poor American is likely to receive only about half the representation of each wealthy American.

This is a worrisome trend. But what makes it really explosive is the fact that the U.S. electoral system — as historians would be quick to point out — increasingly resembles that of Prussia in the 19th and early 20th century. Voting power in Prussia’s three-class voting system (in effect from 1849 to 1918) divided the electorate into three groups, based on their tax payments.

In 1908, 4% of Prussia’s citizens at the top of the income scale paid one-third of the taxes —and elected one-third of the Prussian legislature.[2] Though small in number, they had considerable political clout. The 14% of the middle-class that paid a further third of the taxes also got a third of the vote. In contrast, the bottom third of tax payers — 82% of the population — also got to elect one-third of the legislators. A voter in the top third thus had approximately 20 times the voting power of a citizen in the lowest third.

Even though the United States is still far removed from such crass inequality, the data on U.S. voting trends nevertheless indicates that the country is, in a practical sense, heading in that direction. The bottom line is that the wealthier you are, the weightier your vote is. Is this still a representative democracy?

After all, democracy is more than the mere right to vote. The tally also needs to be representative of all broad groups of the population. It is insincere to argue that poorer Americans simply prefer to abstain by not going to the polls — and thus express their “vote.” Such trends raise serious questions about a “feudalist democracy,” where the votes of the financially better-off carry more weight since others — mostly from lower income groups — don’t vote at all.

Back to the present: Pretty much everybody agrees that U.S. voter apathy is a serious problem, and that something needs to be done about it. Why then is it so hard to stop this decline — not to mention raising the election turnout?

The causes are manifold: it doesn’t help that a large number of Congressmen are running unopposed, giving their constituents even less of an incentive to go to the polls. Weekend voting — instead of the traditional Tuesdays — might also be a step in the right direction. Around 30% of voters report that they do not vote because they were too busy or had conflicting work schedules.

Many people work two or more jobs, and therefore often don’t have time to vote even if they wanted to. So-called motor-voter laws, which enable people to register to vote while renewing their drivers licenses or car registrations, managed to increase voter registration — but did little to improve actual voter participation. This in spite of political parties spending record amounts — and journalists, at least some of them, trying hard to explain the issues to the electorate. All to no avail.

It is thus time to look for some unconventional solutions to boost voter turnout. Other countries — such as Australia and Greece — make voting mandatory, with penalties for non-participation. But would anybody in the United States really want to enforce such legislation, even if it should come to pass? Hardly.

Another oft-mentioned option, voting via the Internet, could potentially increase turnout (you could just log on from work, for example). But due to the much-reported “digital divide,” it would likely increase the political weight of the well-off and educated even further. In 1998, 60% of Americans with incomes of $75,000 or more used the Internet, but only 20% of people with incomes below $25,000 did.[3] This, more or less, mirrors the “voter gap” between rich and poor Americans.

If the voters are not coming to the polling stations, then maybe the polling stations should come to the voters. Interestingly, Wal-Mart has already started a program of registering voters in its stores.

The next logical step would be to put online voting booths into Wal-Marts and other retailers — and to give people an incentive to use them. After all, much of America’s free market system is based on getting the incentives right.

A tax credit of $50 would be a step in the right direction, but might not offer the “instant gratification” so highly valued by many Americans. How about $50 off your purchase on election day?

The only condition: you must actually cast your vote before you receive your shopping coupon. The specifics are secondary, but this could be done through a refundable tax credit in the form of a voucher or store credit. Surely, Wal-Mart and other retailers would not mind participating in such a program if they were reimbursed for their administrative expenses by the U.S. government.

To be perfectly clear: we are not suggesting buying the popular vote, but merely to offer people an increased incentive to once again become active participants in the country’s political system.

There are currently about 170 million eligible voters in the United States. Assuming a (record) voter turnout of 70%, about 120 million people would participate in the program. If every single one of them took advantage of the $50 incentive, the cost to the government would be about $6 billion. Should the program be implemented for all federal elections — that is, every two years when there are Congressional or presidential elections — the program would cost an average of about $3 billion a year. Were it implemented only for presidential elections, that is every four years, the cost would fall to $1.5 billion a year. That’s cheap.

Here’s another way to look at it: the U.S. government each year spends about $190 billion on the 39 million people who are eligible for Medicare. Arguably, a high voter turnout is just as essential to the health of the nation as the Medicare program is to the health of its people.

Also, the United States spends $270 billion a year on defense. If defending the nation against outside threats is worth $290 billion a year, wouldn’t it be worth spending $1.5 billion a year to ensure that American democracy stays strong from the inside as well? The idea of essentially paying people to vote might sound outlandish to some, but is it really more so than having an ever smaller share of the population decide the country’s future?

Conclusion

If current trends continue — and most experts agree they will — the very idea of the United States having a representative democracy may be in danger. That is hardly an outcome to bring pride to the inheritors of the most successful democracy in history.


[1] Voting data provided by Curtis Gans, Committee for the Study of the American Electorate

[2] For more information on Prussia’s three-class voting system (unfortunately only in German), see Deutscher Bundestag

[3] More data on the extent of the digital divide in the United States can be found with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration

— Stephan Richter, President
— Daniel Bachman, Chief Economist
— J