BIRD-IN-HAND, Pa. – The Amish (search) live without electricity, cars, telephones, and usually, without voting. But they are being sought out this year as Republicans try to sign up every possible supporter in presidential battleground states.
Amish almost always side with the Republican Party when they do vote — making them an attractive, if unlikely, voting bloc in the neck-and-neck campaign between President Bush (search) and Democratic nominee John Kerry (search). A majority of the nation's Amish live in key swing states like Pennsylvania and Ohio.
"Pennsylvania and Ohio are just absolute battleground states, and to think that the Amish could weigh in to the tune of thousands of votes that are clearly going to be Republican — that could be very significant for Bush," said Chet Beiler, a former Amish who has been dropping off voter registration forms at Amish businesses and farms in hopes of signing up as many as 3,000 new voters.
As pacifists, most Amish avoid political activity that they believe would link them even indirectly with government-sponsored violence. But hot-button social issues, coupled with gentle prompting from people like Beiler, are galvanizing some Amish to register to vote.
"We hate that abortion issue," said Sam Stolztfus, 60, an Amish farmer and gazebo maker in Pennsylvania's Lancaster County, where an estimated 27,000 Amish live. "We're totally against it. And as far as gay issues, that's completely contrary to the Bible."
The bearded Stolztfus proudly says the Amish are "sort of swept up with Bush fever."
"You could hold up a dead mouse with a sign 'I love Bush' and we'd still probably think twice about stomping that mouse underfoot."
An estimated 180,000 Amish live in 28 states and Ontario. They are a reserved, Christian subculture in rural areas who descend from Swiss Germans and settled in Lancaster County in the early 1700s as part of William Penn's "holy experiment" in religious tolerance. The Amish do not drive cars, watch TV or use telephones in their homes, and are instantly recognizable by their horse-driven buggies and plain garb, bonnets and straw hats.
Physically casting a ballot will not be a problem for Amish in Lancaster County, where mechanical lever voting machines are still used.
"Their basic political inclinations are traditional and conservative," said Don Kraybill, a sociologist of Anabaptist studies at Elizabethtown College in Lancaster. "Although the Amish are not politically active, they make an enticing target for Republicans, politically, because they are likely going to vote Republican."
But experts believe fewer than 10 percent of Amish ever vote, and the prospect of them turning out in great numbers in November is "not going to happen," Kraybill said. "These things occur gradually, over 30 to 40 years — not quickly."
Neither presidential campaign is targeting the Amish, although Bush privately met with about 30 Amish during a July 9 campaign trip through Lancaster County. Earlier this year, the Bush administration relaxed federal labor laws to let Amish teenagers work near dangerous woodworking machines. The Amish had lobbied for the changes for years.
Democrats have all but ceded the Amish vote to Republicans.
"If I know Republicans and their grass-roots operations, they'll spend most of their time trying to phone bank the Amish," said Kerry spokesman Mark Nevins.
Not all Amish are comfortable with the Bush administration — particularly the president's decision to invade Iraq. But John Fisher, who welds iron products in Lancaster and is father of seven children, said Bush's "focus on the family" will win his vote.
Of the war, "something needed to be done," said Fisher, a member of Lancaster's Amish community. "I don't agree with war at all. But he had to do what he had to do."
In Ohio, Amish have begun reaching out to the state Republican Party to learn more about Bush, said party spokesman Jason Mauk. An estimated 55,000 Amish live in Ohio — more than in any other state.
"A lot of Amish Ohioans respect the president as a man of faith and someone who leads with conviction," Mauk said. "These are people who care about our religious freedom and the moral fabric of society. That's motivating a lot of Amish to do what they have not done before, and reach out to us to start a dialogue."