Wal-Mart: Working to elect Democrats?

A couple weeks ago, Wal-Mart announced that -- in addition to expanding its Blue Light Special empire into China (where, unlike U.S. employees, Wal-Mart workers will have unions) -- it is launching a drive to register 1.3 million of its "associates" to vote.As Daniel Gross points out at Slate, it wouldn't be a stretch to doubt the motives of the Bentonville, Ark. retail goliath's experiment in civic engagement: 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.But whatever Wal-Mart's intentions, the fact is that the company's employees aren't the GOP base -- they look a lot more like Democrats: 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.For those who think Wal-Mart's plan is to ultimately turn these reliably Democratic constituencies into GOP voters, Gross points out that this will be a tall order. More likely is that Wal-Mart workers will tend to vote "the way other African-American, female, and low-wage workers who toil elsewhere tend to vote" -- Democratic.And even if Wal-Mart does use some of the same arm-twisting tactics to influence voters that it uses with prospective union members -- from "captive meetings" to more subtle techniques -- the long-term impact will be limited. Every year, 40% of Wal-Mart employees quit their jobs anyway. But they'll still be registered voters.UPDATE: Two new battles brewing at Wal-Mart: 200 employees walking off the job in Hialeah Gardens, Fla., calling new restrictive employee policies "inhuman," and Mexican leaders investigating the company's alleged meddling in their recent presidential elections.