A political action committee working in Lancaster, Pa., believes more can be done to mobilize Amish people to vote for Republican candidates this fall, though the traditionally nonvoting group continues to be a tough nut to crack.
Amish PAC got its start in 2016 when it encouraged Amish people to vote for Donald Trump, registered voters and ran advertisements on billboards and in newspapers.
A majority of Amish people live in the swing states of Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana, making them a desirable and untapped voting bloc for conservative political efforts.
Amish PAC co-founder and outreach director Ben King said Amish people resonate with Republican values such as individual liberty, religious freedom and unobtrusive oversight. He thinks the Amish who voted for Trump in 2016 were driven primarily by the potential for conservative Supreme Court nominees.
“Second would be the economy,” said King, who grew up Amish but is no longer part of the church and owns a barn-building company. “Despite the tariffs, nobody really seems to care. . . . Everything is lost in the optimism about the economy.”
Has he heard any negative feedback from Amish people about Trump’s performance?
“I think most of them are busy taking care of their businesses,” King answered. “. . . Personally, for our business, the tariffs haven’t been a good thing, but I agree 100 percent with President Trump’s approach. He’s using the tariffs to leverage better deals, which is just common sense, and that’s the kind of feedback I’ve received from Amish people as well. It’s a necessary evil.”
After raising roughly $169,000 two years ago, Amish PAC has raised about $25,000 this year.
While newspaper ads in 2016 featured a photo of Trump, this year’s installment running in Lancaster Farming — a newspaper with subscribers in multiple states — uses only text to thank plain voters for helping elect “a president like no other.”
“Donald Trump has kept his promises to lower taxes, reduce over regulation and preserve our religious freedoms!” states the advertisement. “Under Trump’s Leadership America is roaring back to health and prosperity. But there is much more that can be done.
“Our nation and our way of life are still in mortal danger.”
In bold print, it warns that Democrats have the chance to gain enough congressional seats to remove Trump from office.
“To prevent this we must vote for Republican Congressional and Senate candidates on November 6,” it concludes. “This November, your country needs your prayers and your vote.”
How many voted?
Researchers at Elizabethtown (Pa.) College’s Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies found that even though the population of Amish people eligible to vote in Lancaster County grew by 50 percent between 2004 and 2016, a lower number turned out to actually cast a vote.
With further funding, the center hopes to continue the research by looking at Amish voting patterns in Holmes County, Ohio; and Indiana.
By comparing publicly available voter registration information with Amish church directories, Young Center staff determined that of 15,055 eligible Amish voters in the county, only 2,052 were registered and 1,019 voted (6.8 percent) in 2016.
In 2004, the last time before 2016 that a major effort was made to get Amish people to vote, there were 10,350 eligible voters with 2,134 registered. That time, 1,342 Amish people (13 percent) took part in the election, which ultimately reelected George W. Bush.
Young Center senior scholar Steven M. Nolt said there wasn’t enough data to show Amish PAC played a key role in Trump’s election, but it probably didn’t hurt. (Trump beat Hillary Clinton in Pennsylvania by more than 44,000 votes.)
“I think it’s fair to say the candidates were probably not as appealing to many Amish folks as George W. Bush was in 2004, and the efforts were different too,” he said. “In 2004 it was more door- to-door work that was carried out quite locally.”
Nolt said it wasn’t surprising that 90 percent of voting Amish have sided with Republicans, because the same proportion applied to their neighbors.
“Our working hypothesis is that Amish civic participation is a bottom-up, grassroots phenomenon,” he said. “. . . For example, a lot of Amish young men are involved in volunteer fire communities or blood drives. . . . For some people, that sense of involvement in the local community carries over into voting.”
He noted that Republican branding about being less intrusive resonates with people interested in limited government.
“I don’t think many of them are motivated by really trying to redeem America or make America great again,” Nolt said, adding that social issues aren’t a big concern for members of a church influenced little by the wider world.
To vote or not
While appearing more progressive than the Amish on the surface, many conservative Mennonite groups take a firmer stand against voting. Plain Mennonites, whether horse-and-buggy or car-driving, have a stricter conference structure and top-down polity. Congregational polity is more common for the Amish.
“The Amish propensity to base things on oral tradition rather than written discipline lends itself to settings where there could be a strong discouragement to vote, but you could have someone who might say, ‘Well, my dad and granddad voted,’ ” Nolt said. “That oral tradition counts as much as current contemporary bishops saying we shouldn’t vote.”
King hasn’t heard of Amish bishops weighing in on voting or endorsing specific candidates.
U.S. Rep. Lloyd Smucker, the Lancaster area’s incumbent Republican in Congress, was born into an Amish family and is reported to attend a Lutheran church. He is running against Democrat Jess King, a member of Community Mennonite Church in Lancaster. Both graduated from Lancaster Mennonite High School.
Ben King, no relation to Jess King, said what excited him was seeing Amish men who got involved with the political action committee get inspired to participate in Smucker’s campaign.
“Some of the Amish guys I got to know in 2016 are putting on fire-hall events to bring local people out to get updates from our local congressman, Lloyd Smucker, to hear about what’s happening in D.C. and to do voter registration,” he said.
Nolt said it wasn’t surprising that a Mennonite candidate would struggle against a Republican who isn’t Anabaptist.
“From an Amish person’s perspective, the distance between that person and Donald Trump really isn’t different than [between] an Amish person and Hillary Clinton,” he said. “. . . The fact that I’m Mennonite [doesn’t matter]. My world is just really different from theirs.”