MANHEIM, Pa. – In 2016, when more than 6 million Pennsylvanians voted in the presidential election, the state’s 20 pivotal electoral votes were decided by a margin of less than 45,000 voters.
Pennsylvania is home to more than 75,000 Amish people, and most who are eligible don’t vote.
For two Republican operatives, those two numbers together add up to one major opportunity – to convince the traditionally reluctant Amish to come out to the polls, where their votes might be tremendously influential. Their project, which started in 2016 with billboards and newspaper ads urging Amish people to vote for Donald Trump, goes by the name Amish PAC.
Amish PAC aims to win more votes for President Trump in 2020 in a state both Trump and the Democrats are desperate to win. Amish people tend to align strongly on policy with Republicans, who share their opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage. But making voters out of the Amish, who forgo technology like television and the Internet and who believe fiercely in the separation of their religious community from government intrusion, may be a steep goal.
On a farm where eight Amish children in their traditional clothing were playing baseball, a young woman said sternly of those who would ask the Amish to vote: “We don’t really appreciate that.”
While she skillfully snapped lima bean pods off the bushes at her farm, another woman said about voting: “My husband never did; I never did.”
The same answer at market stall after market stall, where Amish farmers sell their wares: Never voted. Never wanted to vote.
But Ben Walters, who co-founded Amish PAC, says the tide is turning. He heard from more Amish people willing to vote in 2018 than in 2016; in 2020, he thinks, the numbers will be still higher. “Their votes would be so important, and there’s a lot of them,” he said. “Since 2016, every single year, it gets a little bit easier. We’re seeing more and more signs of progress. I think behaviors are finally changing.”
Walters lives in the Washington area and is not Amish, though he was familiar with the sect – a Christian community which settled in Pennsylvania in the 18th century and has protected its farming-based, technology-minimizing way of life ever since. His grandparents had Amish friends in Indiana, he says, who used to invite him for meals.
That was enough to spark his curiosity about the sect’s voting behavior. After working on a PAC supporting Ben Carson’s 2016 run for president, Walters teamed up with barn-building company owner Ben King – who grew up Amish and left the faith – to make the Amish and their local religious cousins, the conservative Mennonite denominations, their new political project.
At Elizabethtown College in Lancaster County, Kyle Kopko and Steven Nolt – two of the foremost experts on the Amish – are studying the results of the PAC’s efforts. Nolt said he is skeptical the PAC can make much of a dent. “For a group like the Amish PAC, the key is – to what extent could a group like Amish PAC take that civic identity that’s here, and leverage that into registering to vote and actually voting?” he said. “There’s not a prohibition, [but] there would be a fairly strong, strong religious and cultural bias against [voting.]”
Focusing on Lancaster County, where more than 10 percent of America’s 300,000-plus Amish citizens live, the two researchers found that 1,019 Amish people cast votes in the county in 2016, out of 15,055 eligible voters. That is not a lot, although in the late 1990s, fewer than 450 of the Amish were even registered to vote.
The Amish have been in the United States for hundreds of years but speak a German dialect to this day, and refer to outsiders as “English.” They still dress much as they did when they arrived in this country. They avoid government intrusion in many forms – by withdrawing their children from school and putting them to work in family businesses after eighth grade; by seeking waivers, unusual among almost any other American group, to exempt themselves from participation in Social Security.
Voting makes many apprehensive, just as it does in some traditional Mennonite communities in the region.
“Well, we don’t. It’s just something we don’t do. It’s just something that isn’t practiced among our people – they feel like we as Christians are looking forward to going to heaven someday, and we don’t vote,” Janice Lehman said as she worked at a produce stall in a Lancaster County farm market.
Lehman is a member of one of Lancaster County’s many Mennonite sects, a Christian tradition which shares roots with the Amish but varies more widely in level of integration with the outside world. Mennonites are much more likely to get news about politics from TV, radio and the Internet, all technologies which the Amish don’t use. Some Mennonites are very politically involved (one pastor’s wife even ran for Congress last year, as a Democrat). Others, like Lehman, belong to more traditional orders which emphasize communal values, old-fashioned dress and disengagement from the earthly realm.
Amish PAC hopes to reach those conservative Mennonite voters as well.
Yvonne Beiler, a Mennonite farm owner, said she had heard about the voter-registration push and she wasn’t interested. “We don’t vote, and we just try to pray for our leaders,” she said as her cows mooed loudly and one of her six children called out to her as he tinkered with a wrench. (Young enough to still have training wheels on his bike, the boy is already able to adjust the wheels himself.)
“I guess we just feel like it’s not for us to vote. That would be our belief, I guess,” Beiler said. “I’m not exactly sure. We just don’t do that.”
But George W. Bush, who was president from 2001 to 2009, changed that perception for some in Lancaster County.
Bush and his father, George H.W. Bush, were the only two sitting presidents who came to speak to Amish citizens, Nolt says. The younger Bush already had goodwill built up by his father in the community, and he campaigned hard in Pennsylvania. His frequent talk of Christian values, his identification with rural America and his opposition to abortion and to same-sex marriage all appealed to the Amish.
In 2004, 1,342 Amish people in Lancaster County alone came out to vote for him.
Trump is nowhere near as popular among the Amish. So the fact that Amish voting even approached that peak in 2016 indicates Amish PAC’s efforts might be working, Kopko and Nolt said.
The PAC, which spent nearly $140,000 in 2016 and has raised $32,000 so far for 2020, according to campaign finance records, mostly focuses on advertising in heavily Amish areas of Pennsylvania and Ohio. In 2016, their “VOTE TRUMP” billboards showed a picture of an Amish buggy with the words, “Hard Working, Pro-Life, Family Dedicated . . . Just Like YOU.”
The group is already paying for newspaper advertisements to encourage prospective 2020 voters to register now, and will put the billboards back up in 2020.
As a rule, Amish church members don’t have driver’s licenses. But in addition to getting around by the trademark gray buggies that Lancaster’s roads are famous for, and by the two-wheeled, no-pedal, bicycle-like scooter that the Amish prefer, many are willing to ride in cars, just not drive them.
So on Election Day in 2016, Amish PAC mobilized voters to ring every Amish doorbell they knew of in Lancaster County, offering rides to the polls. Walters says more than 200 non-Amish Republican volunteers helped out.
They hit their jackpot at an Amish wedding – all Amish weddings take place on weekdays in late fall, when the harvest schedule allows enough time for it – where they drove numerous wedding guests to go vote.
Walters says he is confident that if the Amish do vote, they will vote for Trump. “They can relate to a businessman who runs a family business with his kids. I think they appreciate the fact that he abstains from alcohol and drugs,” he said.
His fundraising messages, which drum up donations from Republicans across the country willing to invest in the Amish vote, mock Democrats and use favorite Fox News catchphrases. When he talks to Amish would-be voters, he takes a different tone. “The Amish care about religious liberty, business regulation, abortion and judges. Those are four things that the Amish overwhelmingly support President Trump over whoever the Democratic candidate is. We talk a lot more about issues than we do about candidates,” he said.
Kopko and Nolt found that 90 percent of Amish who do register do so as Republicans. Less than 1 percent register as Democrats.
At Root’s Country Market, a jumble of rural Pennsylvania cultures collide every Tuesday. It’s the sort of place where a traditionally dressed Amish woman selling dairy products sets up shop right next to a secular stand that makes lewd, winking references on hats and T-shirts to town names in the area: “Intercourse, Pa. Between Blue Ball and Paradise.”
In the market’s sprawling buildings and rows of outdoor stands, auctioneers will sell anything, even a few boxes of Kraft macaroni and cheese, to the highest bidder. Merchants who may be Amish, Mennonite or “English” peddle jambalaya, wine, hemp oil, five different editions of “Anne of Green Gables,” reams of VHS and cassette tapes and paperback romance novels and a reduced-price TV set up to play old episodes of “Bewitched.”
Others sell Trump hats, Trump flags and Trump bobbleheads, and Confederate flag belt buckles, wallets and bandannas.
One religious woman selling flavored pretzels and pies piled high with strawberries at a market stall didn’t want to discuss politics, but said when she votes, she votes “to stay conservative.”
But Trump doesn’t appear to have gained a lot of traction in the community. Omar Stolzfus, running a pit beef stand at the bustling market, said he skipped the polls in 2016 because he was dissatisfied with both candidates. He last voted in 2004. George W. Bush was the last candidate who had “Christian values that I shared,” he said.
Men like Stolzfus, who own businesses that bring them in contact with non-Amish neighbors often, are more likely to have political opinions than farmers who interact almost entirely with fellow Amish people. And men are much more likely to vote than Amish women: 77 percent of Amish who registered in 2016 were male, Kopko and Nolt found.
Priscilla Stolzfus, who worked at the couple’s dairy stall inside the market while her husband manned their beef shack outside, said she never thought of voting even when her spouse did. “Maybe I feel like it’s something that the husband as a leader would do, instead of myself,” she said.
That’s how Elizabeth Lapp, who owns a stand-alone farm stand with her husband in Lancaster, thinks about it too. She describes herself as “a country wife” who doesn’t pay much attention to politics.
“I think Trump – who’s Trump? He’s the president, right? – he’s doing pretty good. Just from what I hear people say, he’s trying to improve things,” she said.
Ike Lapp, on the other hand, is the rare Amish man with plenty of political opinions. His neighbor Bob, who is not Amish, frequently drives him from place to place. And Bob watches Fox News, and fills Lapp in on what is happening.
Lapp says of Trump: “I think he does more of what he says than a lot of the presidents ever did. If he says it, he means it. . . .He’s pretty rash, but I think that’s what we need as a leader.”
Lapp is against impeachment. (“I just think it’s another way for the people that don’t like him to get something against him.”) Though he only gets the local Lancaster newspaper and never watches TV or hears the radio, he’s concerned about fake news. (“Sad to say, the media just wants you to hear the bad side of everybody. There has to be a good side.”)
He’s thinking of registering to vote for the first time. In 2020, he might cast the first ballot of his life, for Trump.