Free Couches for 75 Percent Voter Turnout? Not So Fast.

Why the Bernie & Phyl's Election 2016 promo is DOA.

modern sofa on the white

Photo via iStock/Dimitru Zubarcluc

You know how a certain furniture retailer keeps rolling out all those promises to pay for your furniture if the Red Sox win the World Series, or play the Yankees, or whatever? Don’t worry, they say, we bought insurance, so we can root for the Sox, too.

Imagine if you could also lure customers with the possibility of getting free things, and be confident you wouldn’t be worse for it, not just with insurance, but with the knowledge that what you’re banking on is a statistical impossibility.

Such is the depressing reality of a new ad campaign from Bernie & Phyl’s, the family mega-business that has provided New England with interior furnishings and charming TV spots for a generation. The Norton-based company this year ran a promotion promising to refund all purchases for part of August (the promotion ended on the 22nd) if national voter turnout in November eclipses 75 percent.

Which, unfortunately, it won’t.

That was the message of a stats-backed rebuttal to the furniture giant’s claims written this week by Erin O’Brien, political professor at UMass Boston.

“Folks, this bet is worse than the two major party candidates you have to choose from,” O’Brien writes in a post that appeared on the MassPoliticsProfs blog. She adds, “New Englanders, free furniture is not happening.”

Larry Rubin, Bernie’s son and the company’s president, though, feels differently.

“This isn’t a promotion based on gimmicky probabilities or factors; it’s civics focused and quite attainable,” Rubin says in a statement that appeared in the trade publication Furniture Today. “If 75 percent of eligible voters—plus one more person—do what they should do on Nov. 8, then our customers win, and democracy wins. All indications are that this election will attract a record number of voters.”

But here’s more from O’Brien:

National voter turnout has not toped 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.

In other words, the 75 percent mark in our democracy might as well be 95 percent. Or 105 percent.

She goes on to write about things we could do to get more people to the polls. Let voters vote over several days instead of a “random Tuesday in November,” for example, or register voters automatically when they turn 18. Or do something more radical, like converting to a parliamentary system (again: snowball, meet hell).

Look, as O’Brien points out, it feels kind of mean to pick this thing apart. It’s just a promotion for furniture. And besides, the Rubins seem to be decent people, who among other things have done more than just about anyone around here to raise money and awareness for Multiple Sclerosis (which has afflicted Phyl for more than 40 years).

Maybe this is truly just a light-hearted way to sell couches, star in a fun commercial, give a shout-out to Vermonter, ex-candidate and fellow Bernie, Bernie Sanders, and maybe try to urge more people to “get up off your couch and vote.”

All of that is great. But maybe shoppers should think twice about picking up that love seat if they’re hoping to pay for it with their neighbors’ devotion to civic duty alone. And maybe it’s worth considering how we might get to a place where 75 percent turnout is an attainable goal, and not just an impossible fantasy.