History: Who can get the Amish vote?

Nov 7, 2016 by

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Despite a drive to garner Old Order Amish votes this year, historical evidence suggests Donald Trump won’t get them as tries to become the 45th president of the United States.

Two Republican operatives created Amish PAC this past spring to target “a deeply conservative and often forgotten block of voters” for Trump, per the committee’s mission statement. When some people in plain garb attended a Trump rally in Manheim, Pa., last month, alt-right media rejoiced.

“They are a good group of people who work very hard, and to have them show up at a Trump rally should say something about how they feel about America!!” one person wrote on a conservative website.

Another site published a headline absurdly proclaiming, “Amish Leaders Make the First Ever Presidential Endorsement.”

And a Twitter user predicted, “There’s a huge chance that the Amish will give us the election. There are 300K of them in PA alone! Very few show up in phone & online polls.” The tweet was liked more than a thousand times.

Such optimism flew in the face of the reality of George W. Bush’s attempts to win Amish support in his successful bid for re-election in 2004.

George W. Bush meets with Amish and Mennonite residents in Lancaster, Pa., Aug. 16, 2006. — White House photo by Kimberlee Hewitt, Wikimedia Commons

George W. Bush meets with Amish and Mennonite residents in Lancaster, Pa., Aug. 16, 2006. — White House photo by Kimberlee Hewitt, Wikimedia Commons

The Old Order Amish, of course, are renowned for their separation from the world, which generally includes not voting. But, as historian Paton Yoder has pointed out, there are no official prohibitions against casting ballots. “Amish reluctance to vote is shaped more by their belief in the futility of political action than by any formal religious taboos,” he wrote.

About 10 percent of Old Order Amish vote in presidential elections. They’re more likely to participate in local elections, where issues such as zoning regulations and bond issues have more direct implications and where they may personally know the candidates.

In the 2004 presidential campaign, Republican organizers appealed to faith. Pennsylvania and Ohio, with their large Amish populations, were swing states, and Bush was looking for any edge he could find. He found a couple of possibilities in abortion and gay marriage, two contentious topics in the campaign.

“Is it then right, not to do our duty to help a president that stands up for moral rights, like President Bush does?” argued an Amish writer in The Budget.

Another advantage was Bush’s down-to-earth persona and expressions of Christian faith, according to noted Amish scholar Donald Kraybill and his student assistant, Kyle Kopko, who studied the 2004 campaign and published their findings in Mennonite Quarterly Review in 2007.

The president visited Old Order Amish in Pennsylvania and Ohio several times. During a Lancaster County, Pa., visit he received an Amish-made a quilt emblazoned with “I Love America.”

“The Amish were thrilled, and they had some just beautiful discussions. . . . When it came to issues of faith, he [Bush] affirmed them in the most touching way; . . . his eyes welled up. . . . Something special happened there,” recalled Chet Beiler, a Pennsylvania Republican operative who was raised Old Order Amish and led local Amish registration efforts.

That push resulted in the number of registered Amish skyrocketing 169 percent to 2,134 members in Lancaster County. More than nine out 10 aligned with the GOP, with a significant number identifying with a third party or as independents. But that still left more than 8,000 unregistered adults in the county. In Holmes County, Ohio, nearly 19 percent of church members registered to vote, 99 percent of them as Republicans.

But their actions generated plenty of criticism, both from within Old Order Amish ranks as well as from “English” observers.

For an Ohio Amishman, registering was a big step on a slippery slope.

“If we as Christians . . . dare to vote, then why dare we not also undertake to hold high-office duties?” he wrote in The Budget. “What if we vote for such [a president] and he then decides to make war and shed blood? Would we not then also be guilty of the same, because we have put our voice in to put such in office?”

An anonymous letter sent to Amish leaders in Lancaster County accused them of being a political special-interest group “like labor unions and lobby groups.”

Beiler was disappointed come Election Day. An impressive 63 percent of Lancaster County’s registered Amish voters went to the polls, yet that was only 13 percent of all Amish adults. The latter percentage was the same in Holmes County; 30 percent of registered Old Order Amish voted.

That meant 1,342 Amish in Lancaster County and 971 in Holmes County cast ballots, presumably the overwhelming majority for Bush. It wasn’t enough for him to carry Pennsylvania, and he didn’t need it to win Ohio.

In addition, Kraybill and Kopko reported anecdotally that very few Amish voted in six other states.

Meanwhile, one Pennsylvania Amishman who advocated voting acknowledged the political involvement came with a price.

“Maybe we went overboard too much, I don’t know,” he told the two researchers. “The politicians now want us to help again the next time. They’re not going to quit on us. They want me to come to more meetings to plan for the next elections.”

Rich Preheim is a writer and historian from Elkhart, Ind.

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