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.
Noreen Malone is a staff writer for the New Republic.