Wal-Mart has launched a drive to give all its employees voter registration materials. Beth Runyan, manager of the new West Des Moines Wal-Mart, led about 30 of her employees in cheers just after eight this morning, then explained the retailer had decided to hand out “non-partisan” voter registration materials prepared by the League of Women Voters.
Runyan told her employees it was part of Wal-Mart’s effort to be a good neighbor. “We are not going to give any directions as far as party affiliations or anything like that. That is a personal decision,” she says. “The most popular question isn’t so much how, but it’s why. ‘Why is Wal-Mart doing this?’ I explain that it’s just like a benefit. However they use it is their own choice.”
Wal-Mart’s benefits, specificially its health care benefits, have been the subject of a nationwide “Wake Up Wal-Mart” campaign this fall. Several Democrats who’re planning to run for president, including Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack, appeared at rallies to criticize Wal-Mart for failing to provide health care insurance to all its employees. In response, the nation’s largest retailer announced this voter registration drive.
David Tovar, director of media relations for Wal-Mart, flew in from corporate headquarters in Arkansas to oversee the Iowa campaign. “Iowa’s an important state for Wal-Mart and it’s also an important state for our democracy with the impact that it has on presidential elections,” Tovar says.
Tovar disputes the message from those anti-Wal-Mart rallies. “Well, obviously we think they’re attacking the wrong company. We think it’s just a union funded group that’s all about politics and nothing else.” Tovar maintains the company’s employees had been asking for the information because many Wal-Mart workers saw what the “elected officials” had been saying about Wal-Mart and “wanted an opportunity to have their voices heard.”
Yet none of the four West Des Moines Wal-Mart employees the company lined up for media interviews had an opinion to share on the subject.
Twenty-three-year-old Mike Leng has never voted. “It doesn’t really cross my mind to go register to vote,” he says. “To me, it’s something small and I overlook it.” So why register today? “An opportunity to voice my opinion,” he said. And what is his opinion? “I can’t really say.”
Thirty-three-year-old Armin Auskic fled war-torn Bosnia seven years ago and became a U.S. citizen in April of 2005. He’s never voted before. “I don’t like politics,” he says.
Another Bosnian immigrant, 25-year-old Zejna Dzafic, has lived in the U.S. for 14 years, became a citizen two years ago and is the ladies clothing supervisor in the store. She’s never voted either. “I’m really excited,” she says. “It’s my first time.”
Thirty-five-year-old Benny Vasquez, the bay supervisor in the automotive department at the West Des Moines Wal-Mart, says it felt good to sign up. “If it wouldn’t have been for Wal-Mart providing this, I don’t think that I probably would have registered,” Vasquez says.
Wal-Mart has about 18,000 employees in Iowa.