The photo of President Donald Trump speaking at an Oct. 26, 2020, campaign rally at the Lancaster County Airport went viral. In it, over Trump’s right shoulder, were four men dressed in black coats and pants topped off with straw hats – the typical clothing worn by the Amish and other members of one of the county’s many Anabaptist communities.
Trump mentioned the “Pennsylvania Dutch” during his speech that day: “Don’t tell anybody, but the Pennsylvania Dutch are voting en masse,” he said. “They’re voting. I heard that the other day.”
The photo revived conversations about the Amish and Republicans’ efforts to mobilize a large community that mostly eschewed involvement in politics since arriving in the county in the 18th century.
According to new research by experts at Elizabethtown College, Amish voters did turn out in record numbers in 2020, an election that saw Joe Biden defeat Trump by only 80,000 votes out of nearly 7 million cast statewide.
But the record turnout by the Amish amounted to fewer than 3,000 votes in Lancaster County, according to the experts’ research.
The study of 2020 voting by members of the Amish community was the culmination of a tedious process of cross-checking voter rolls with church membership directories for the communities in Lancaster and others across the country. The project concluded that at least 4,125 Amish people in Lancaster County registered to vote and 2,940 voted in the 2020 general election, a significant increase from the about 2,060 registrants and 1,020 voters in 2016.
Steven Nolt, the director of Elizabethtown’s Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies, and Kyle Kopko, an adjunct professor of political science at the college, were both hesitant to assign a single reason to the change from 2016 to 2020, but both agreed the most likely factor was on-the-ground voter outreach.
“If you look at 2016 and 2020, when there is the same person at the top of the ticket, namely Donald Trump, and we saw really different levels of voter turnout, one of the factors may have been what the nature of the outreach was,” Nolt said.
The Amish comprise a number of Anabaptist Christian traditions rooted in church regulations on agriculture, transportation, dress and other facets of life. Each Amish community is different from one another, but they are generally recognized by their decision to not adopt most modern technologies and formation of insular communities.
While they comprise a sliver of the current electorate, the Amish, which number about 87,000 in Pennsylvania and 43,000 in Lancaster County, tend to register overwhelmingly as Republicans, according to the Young Center’s research. With the past two presidential elections having been decided by less than 90,000 votes, convincing members of the Amish community to vote could be a key factor in Republicans’ future strategy to winning statewide elections.
Local and national leaders have paid attention to this fact in recent years. In particular, the Republican Committee of Lancaster County has worked to inform Amish voters about the mail-in voting process, said Kirk Radanovic, the chairman of the committee.
“We have invested significant resources into registering voters, and have actively engaged the Amish community who typically align with the Republican Party with great success in recent elections,” Radanovic said.
U.S. Rep. Lloyd Smucker’s campaign directly registered more than 1,000 Amish voters ahead of the 2020 election, said Jenna Geesey, his campaign manager.
“[The Amish] understand the importance of participating in the process in order to elect leaders who share their values and identify with the Republican Party's principles that support strong family and community units, rather than reliance on government for solutions," Smucker said in a statement to LNP | LancasterOnline.
Whether those efforts are worth the investment of resources needed to turn out Amish voters is a calculus the Republican Party will need to make ahead of each election, said Stephen Medvic, the Director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College.
“We know that sort of high-touch, calling people, knocking on doors, face-to-face mobilization efforts, they work quite a bit,” Medvic said. “But they're also labor intensive, they're quite expensive.”
Two Republicans formed Amish PAC in 2016 to target voters in Ohio and Pennsylvania, spending about $140,000 in 2016 and $200,000 in 2020 on local advertising, consulting and fundraising, according to OpenSecrets.org, a campaign finance tracking project of the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, DC. The PAC spent about $30,000 in 2022.
Kopko and another Elizabethtown College researcher found that Amish voter turnout spiked in 2004 when George W. Bush was running for reelection. Kopko wrote afterward that “voter registration among Amish people in Lancaster County increased by a whopping 169 percent. Of the 10,350 Amish adults in Lancaster County, 21 percent registered to vote by Election Day.”
Democrat John Kerry won Pennsylvania by almost 150,000 votes that year, but in Lancaster County Bush received nearly twice the number of votes as Kerry.
What recent results suggest
The Young Center has not yet committed to doing an analysis of Amish voting in this year’s midterm election. But in lieu of an official study, election results in largely Amish communities in the county can provide a rough indicator of whether Amish turnout increased.
That method is not without significant limitations, though. Voter turnout can vary significantly from one election to the next depending on what type of election is being held and who is on the ballot. Municipal elections tend to have the smallest turnout, followed by midterm and then presidential elections.
Reaching an estimate for 2022 requires controlling for the change in overall turnout between elections and comparing that to the change in turnout in a specific municipality. For example, overall turnout decreased significantly from 2020 to 2022 in every municipality in Lancaster, but it decreased by a smaller percentage in some areas compared to others.
Comparing the 2018 midterms to 2022, turnout in five heavily-Amish townships – Leacock, Salisbury, Paradise, Sadsbury and Strasburg – all saw greater increases in turnout rates than the countywide average of 11%. Leacock and Salisbury, for their parts, ranked third and fourth in the county in turnout growth, with turnout increasing by 24% and 21%, respectively.
Compared to 2020, turnout in 2022, unsurprisingly given the high interest in presidential years, was lower across Lancaster County. Countywide turnout was down 20% in 2022 relative to 2020, and of the five aforementioned municipalities, just Strasburg had a lower decrease in turnout than the average. Leacock and Salisbury ranked second and third among municipalities recording the largest declines in the proportion of turnout.
What that could suggest is that Amish voter participation increased marginally from 2018 to 2022, and that 2020 was an outlier year due to the focused mobilization of Amish voters by Republicans. But even with these figures in mind, it’s impossible to isolate changes in Amish turnout from that of other voters in those municipalities using only the election results themselves.