The Undecided Amish

To vote or not to vote.

LANCASTER, Pa.—The 2008 election is a decidedly modern one, what with all the tabloid scandals, Internet smears, teen-pregnancy side plots, and non-white-male candidates. Which got me to thinking: What, exactly, would an earlier America have made of this year’s historic race? How would, say, a simple farmer whisked from 100 years ago make sense of all that’s going on?

So, I drove to Lancaster County, Pa., this fall in search of a niche vote ne plus ultra. In 2004, the Bush campaign devoted a disproportionate amount of resources to wooing the Amish, whose relatively small but fast-growing population is concentrated in important swing states—approximately in 48,000 in Pennsylvania alone and 227,000 nationally. The Amish are an Anabaptist sect whose way of life boils down to institutionalized anachronism: They steer clear of electricity whenever possible, interact very little with the broader modern world, and are permitted various exemptions from the U.S. government (from draft registration, schooling past the eighth grade, and the Social Security system, if they so choose).

Unsurprisingly enough, their über-traditional values and anti-government stances make them overwhelmingly Republican, among those Amish who choose to vote. But because they try to remain as separate as possible from modernity, few Amish actually make it to the polling place—in Lancaster in ‘04, just about 13 percent of the eligible adult population voted. That was after a major get-out-the-vote effort from the Republicans, spearheaded by a former Amishman-turned-local-GOP-operative, that resulted in a 169 percent spike in new registrations among the Amish that year.

Despite the low turnout compared with national averages, it was a bumper crop of plain people at the polls—and depending on the margins in Pennsylvania, the McCain campaign could sure use the 1,300 or so Amish Lancaster votes Bush got in ‘04. With early news reports in ‘08 of Amish at Hillary Clinton rallies and Iraq weighing more heavily on the pacifist Amish than it was a few years ago, I thought those votes might be a little more up for grabs this year.

But looking for Amish voters is a little like trying to buy drugs. It’s extremely awkward to walk up to someone and ask where to find them. Once you meet someone with a connection, however, they’re everywhere you look. When I first arrived in Bird-in-Hand and Intercourse, the main Amish villages in Lancaster, I drove from farm to farm, stopping at those recognizable as Amish by the old-fashioned clothing hanging outside to dry. In an effort to casually strike up conversation about the election, I bought huge hunks of nonpasteurized cheese and ogled various wooden gazebos.

It didn’t work. No one was at all weirded out by the stranger inviting herself into their backyards and asking prying questions—the Amish are gently tolerant of the booming tourist industry that’s exoticized their simplicity—but my questions about whether they’d vote made already laconic people doubly so.

Egg-selling Verna Miller, for instance, wreathed by five blond High German-speaking children like a bonneted Lady Madonna, explained to me that although her parents received a daily newspaper, since marrying her husband she’d stopped reading one. She didn’t have the time, and from what she could see, little in the outside world affected her. Even if the election came down to just a few votes in Pennsylvania, she, like others, assured me that “God will make sure it’s the right candidate.” This frustrating explanation that a prayer is equal to a vote was offered up over and over. (P. Diddy never made it out to Bird-in-Hand, I guess.)

Most Amish, when pressed, told me it just wasn’t their way to vote and that it never really had been. Or they said they didn’t think they were informed enough to vote. They deflected my follow-ups with politely repeated uses of the phrase “I don’t rightly know” and apologetic, disarming grins that could put the most expert flacks to shame. Their attitude would be described as apathetic in nearly every other circumstance; here, it seemed more like conscientious objection. Lots of people seemed aware of the election only in the vaguest sense, a reality that boggled my FiveThirtyEight-obsessed mind. What they had heard about the election was spotty—they’d heard Obama was a foreign-born Muslim, for instance, or that he was definitely going to make gay marriage legal.

In fact, the pacifist Amish were far more participatory in American government until the Civil War made them rethink the philosophical implications of active engagement. Even a generation ago, it was common practice for local Republicans to herd carpools of nondriving Amish to the polls, but no one could quite say why that stopped—maybe the Republicans needed the Amish vote less for local elections; maybe the Amish had grown disenchanted with the corruption of politics.

In that sense, the GOP’s ‘04 wooing of the Amish was a throwback. Despite several speeches in the county, neither campaign has pursued the Amish specifically the way Bush, who made a special trip to meet with Amish leaders, did. (Obama’s campaign, in a particularly tone-deaf attempt to woo the noncomputer-using Amish, actually created an “Amish for Obama” community blog. Its handful of sporadic posters don’t exactly appear to represent the throbbing heart of the Amish community—one appears to have simply joined the first 10 community blogs as listed alphabetically; another is a religious Jew from Nevada.) But at least the Obama campaign sent canvassers into Bird-in-Hand and Intercourse; the Amish I spoke to in early October hadn’t seen anyone going door-to-door for McCain. (Neither of the campaigns responded to my queries about Amish outreach.)

Convinced the Amish voter was the Loch Ness monster of the Eastern seaboard, I headed back to try to find the Bird-in-the-Hand Bake Shop, whose Amish owner I’d been told was spotted chanting for Sarah Palin at a McCain rally. Lost along buggy-populated Route 340, I pulled off and asked a woman for directions. She turned out to be the wife of one of the biggest Amish political junkies in Lancaster. I was in.

Dan and Fannie Fisher live on Enterprise Road in the most bustling area of Bird-in-Hand. It turns out that most of the Amish voters live near the center of town, where they’re more tied into the mainstream economy, have more contact with non-Amish, and are likely to read a newspaper. Because of that, they’re considered “liberal” by their more traditional brethren farther out in farm country—it’s an urban-rural divide writ very small.

Like the other Amish voters I met, “liberal” Dan was staunchly Republican, though he wasn’t pleased with this year’s choices. (So much for my up-for-grabs theory.) McCain lacks the religiosity and traditional values Bush pushed, though several people told me they thought Sarah Palin was bringing the ticket in the right direction. (“She’s for country people.”) Women are expected to be subservient to men in the Amish community and devote their lives to homemaking, but I was told that since Palin wasn’t on the top of the ticket, it was probably OK for her to run. I didn’t meet a single woman who told me she was going to vote, even Fannie, who clearly had been following the race along with her husband.

“The country” isn’t ready for a woman or a black president, I heard repeatedly. Obama was too “inexperienced,” which turned out several times to be a soft buildup to blunt racism. There’s a huge fear of the unknown in the Amish community. Immigration and national security were of massive concern, as was the problem of too many people asking for “handouts” from the government. The Amish have their own health care system, in which members of the community make sure everyone is covered no matter what, but reject anything like it on a national scale. They don’t think it can work when everyone doesn’t have the same values. Dan’s son Paul, a supreme fiscal conservative, referenced the Founding Fathers over and over to me in defending his ideas.

In many ways, these were some of the most high-minded, philosophical conversations I’ve had about the election. No one kvetched about McCain’s verbal tics or speculated on Levi’s ring tattoo. The national soap opera of the election, an embarrassingly large part of the media I consume, isn’t playing here. Lipstick on a pig gives me something to talk about on Gchat with my friend on another coast; the Fishers’ gossip and circle is local.

The Amish who vote won’t pass judgment on those who don’t—it’s a free choice they’ve made, and for all their passion about politics, they would never pressure one of their neighbors into voting. It’s an oddly tolerant attitude to see right after you’ve been asked how in good conscience you can vote for a black man. But following the news and thinking about the ideas behind it is an escape for some from a community that gives a very difficult set of rules to live by.