If you grew up in Southern New England, or have lived here more then a week, then you have seen a few thousand Bernie and Phyl’s furniture commercials and can easily hum their signature slogan.  “Quality, Comfort, & Price … That’s Nice!” (You sang it, didn’t you?!)  They’re quintessentially New England and inexplicably identity laden.  Messing with Bernie and Phyl is akin to messing with New England.

But I’m going to do it. Bernie and Phyl’s latest offer has forced this MassPoliticsProf to cross into consumer advocacy.

Bernie and Phyl’s current promotion provides the usual disclaimers while promising free furniture to those customers who purchase between now and August 22nd *if* voter turnout in the Presidential election is really high.  And I mean really high. The exact text is: “If the National Voter turnout is 75% or greater for the 2016 United States of America Presidential Election on November 8th, 2016, you will receive your furniture for free!”

Folks, this bet is worse than the two major party candidates you have to choose from. 

National voter turnout has not topped 75% since 1896.  In the modern era, it is not even close.  Since 1964, national voter turnout in Presidential elections has never been higher than 62.8%. Bush v Gore – so tight the courts ultimately decided – saw national turnout at a mere 54.2%.  Bush v. Kerry – a paltry 60.1% mid-war.  The two Obama contests?  61.6% and 58.2% respectively.

The individual states are just as bad. In the 2000, 2004, 2008, and 2012 Presidential elections only two states every saw voter turnout eclipse 75%.  Minnesota did it in ’04, ’08, and ’12. Wisconsin did so in ‘12. And nobody else.  Nada.  Despite the highest educational rate in the country, Massachusetts was just 66.2% in 2012 and 67.3% in 2008.

New Englanders, free furniture is not happening.  At least not with this deal.

The reasons for low-voter turnout are well known and easily combated if there were simultaneous legislative and executive will.  Americans turn out in at considerably lower rates than citizens of similar advanced democracies because we make it uniquely difficult to vote.  

Registration and voting are artificially separated rather than, say, automatic registrationwhen one turns 18 or files taxes.  Election day rules vary by state and locality and we hold Presidential contests on a fairly random Tuesday in November, biasing against those who work less flexible jobs who are also disproportionately of color and/or poor. Why not have several days of voting that includes some weekends?  Rather than a parliamentary system with multiple parties where more citizens are inspired to vote for a party that truly represents them, our electoral system structurally advantages just two major parties who seek only to mobilize those most inclined to them.  Big money dominates and turns regular citizens off.  All these are policy choices that depress national voter turnout.

To make matters worse, the last 8-9 years has featured a spat of policies across states that make it harder to voteand do so, especially, for the most vulnerable. Voter id laws (the confusion surrounding them in the courts), cutting back or eliminating early voting, blocking same day voter registration – these all further deplete turnout and do so particularly for the poor and communities of color.

So the bad of it is you’re most definitely not getting free furniture from Bernie and Phyl. Seventy-five percent national voter turnout is currently an impossible bar given how we run elections. The historical record is clear and we have not even weighed in the facts that both Clinton and Trump are uniquely unpopular. 

All this is a bit of fun of course.  The promotion is but a gimmick to get people into the stores at the end of summer.  Bernie and Phyl are reportedly quite philanthropic especially on MS advocacy. 

But what’s definitely not fun is that most Americans do not know why 75% turnout doesn’t have a snowball chance in hell of happening in 2016 or the continual policy choices that produce this outcome.  We need to read the fine print on advertising, of course, but this polity needs to change the “electoral fine print” and adopt uniform electoral practices that encourage citizen participation.

That'd be nice.