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US Election 2004: Courting the Amish Vote  - 2004-10-05

In a close presidential race, Republicans and Democrats are scouring America for every vote they can get, sometimes reaching out to unlikely groups of potential voters.

The hotly contested Midwestern state of Ohio boasts the country's largest community of Old Order Amish, a Christian sect of Swiss origin that forbids the use of automobiles, electricity, telephones and other modern conveniences in favor of a simple agrarian life. The Amish are being courted for their vote as never before, sparking debate within their reclusive community as to whether political participation is appropriate.

On the winding roads of Holmes County, Ohio, cars and trucks are outnumbered by one-horse buggies.

Like most Amish men, carpenter Roy Miller sports a long beard but no mustache, a plain white shirt, homemade trousers and a simple hat. He smiles warmly when asked about President Bush.

"I wrote him a letter and invited him and [First Lady] Laura [Bush] to share an Amish-cooked chicken dinner with us," he said. "I think he is a good man, I really do. I think he wants what is right for this country."

The Amish are pacifists and Roy Miller says he has grave misgivings about America's military involvement in Iraq and elsewhere. But he applauds the president's stance on social issues: specifically his opposition to abortion and gay marriage. Mr. Miller says many Amish do not vote, but those who do overwhelmingly vote Republican.

With that in mind, Republicans hope to get as many Amish to the polls as possible in November. Aaron McLear is a spokesman for President Bush's re-election campaign in Ohio.

"There is no voter in Ohio that we are ignoring," he said. "We want to reach out to every single voter in the state. We are going to need every vote we can get. It is going to be an extraordinarily tight race this year."

In the tiny town of Mount Hope, a group of Amish tend to a one-horsepower ice cream maker. They shovel ice and salt around the container holding the soon-to-be-dessert, which is churning thanks to a series of gears and pulleys powered by a horse that walks in a circle nearby.

The Amish are wary of outsiders in general, and microphone-toting reporters in particular. None of the men at the ice cream maker volunteer their names. But, after a long pause, one shrugs in response to a question about voting.

"We just leave it up to the individual, you know," he said. "Some of them [Amish] believe in voting, some of them do not."

Another says there is little the Amish need from politicians.

"My thinking is that we leave it up to prayer," he said. "We get [from life] what we are supposed to have. But if we have them [politicians] in our prayers, I think that will help."

Outside Mount Hope, organic dairy farmer David Kline has finished the afternoon milking. An elder in the community, he says there is much to like about Amish life.

"The quietness. And, as a farmer, to be working with the seasons with the land, growing food," he said. "Everything on the farm is non-chemical. We have a lot of birds and insects and everything, everything is living in harmony. It is just a good life."

But Mr. Kline says that way of life is imperiled by the steady creep of technology. He says a small but growing number of Amish now have cellular phones, and some are tilling the land with tractors. He says Amish culture requires a certain degree of isolation and separation from society at large to survive, and political activism inevitably erodes that barrier.

"The local Republican Party is trying to get the Amish community to vote," he said. "I was at a ministers' meeting and they [the ministers] were appalled by this. And they [the ministers] encouraged us to tell our congregations, 'Do not listen to those political parties'. The politicians' kingdom is of this world. But our [the Amish] kingdom is not of this world. We live here. We enjoy it. But we are looking out for a future kingdom."

Carpenter Roy Miller says he understands the objections of some of his fellow Amish.

"We really make a difference [draw a distinction] between church and state," he said. "And I agree with that. But I do not think it would hurt my religion if I would vote."

Mr. Miller estimates that half of Ohio's 50,000 Amish are registered to vote, of which one in five will actually cast a ballot for president in November. That would be 5,000 votes, enough to have an impact in a close race.