Utah Polygamous Communities Produce Voter's Guide

By: AP
By: AP

One of Utah's original voting blocs - polygamists - is attempting to re-establish its political influence after more than a century of largely trying to go unnoticed.

Communities in Harmony, an alliance of representatives from various Utah polygamous groups, has issued a voter's guide to assist Utah's polygamists with Election Day decision-making.

"We need the candidates to know that they are just as accountable to us as they are to other constituents," Carlene Cannon, the group's spokeswoman and a member of the Davis County Cooperative Society, which practices polygamy.

Polygamy is a legacy of the early Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The faith brought the practice to Utah in the 1840s but abandoned it in 1890 as a condition of statehood. Self-described fundamentalist Mormons continue to believe the principle brings glorification in heaven and maintain the practice mostly in secret.

But recent events have many fundamentalists placing a renewed focus on participating in the political process. In 2005, Utah courts took over a polygamous church's property trust, and this year a highly publicized raid on the same sect's ranch at Eldorado, Texas, put more than 400 children in state custody.

The voter's guide questioned political candidates at all levels of state and federal government on political ethics and civil rights.

"Those of us watching at home in disbelief tried to comprehend that here in America; the land of the free, our own people were treated as if they were cattle and hauled off by military force - a picture of hate for a people misunderstood," a section of the voter's guide says. "The iron fist the state of Texas extended was not an accident. Our own public officials bragged about the assistance they gave to Texas officials."

According to Cannon, about 37,000 polygamists and their children live in Utah, which has a population of about 2.7 million.

The voter project grew out of advocacy work begun about six years ago by polygamous women who sought to forge a better relationship with state officials and agencies.

In all, more than 150 candidates were polled. Among the questions: Should candidates accept funds from lobbyists who in turn ask for political favors; should consenting adults in polygamous families be considered criminals; and should the government spend public safety funds disproportionately to target one group of people?

Candidates were rated on a 1-5 scale on ethics and equal civil rights for their answers, with 10 considered a perfect, or positive, score.

More than 90 candidates for state offices did not respond by the Oct. 18 deadline.

"Obviously, this is a highly contentious issue and with the exception of a very few offices, most obviously being something like attorney general, it's not something most elected officials or those running for office see as a crucial part of what they're doing," said University of Utah political scientist Matthew Burbank.

Among the no-shows was Republican Attorney General Mark Shurtleff who is seeking re-election and has worked closely with polygamous groups. His Democratic challenger Jean Hill did answer and earned 9 points and a thumbs-up for her responses.

Hill contends the state's bigamy statutes are unconstitutional in the wake of the 2003 Supreme Court ruling Lawrence v. Texas. That case struck down a Texas sodomy law, saying it violated the due process clause and that the state has no justifiable interest intruding into the private lives of consenting adults.

Shurtleff says the state's bigamy statutes would be upheld, but it is unreasonable to prosecute thousands of families and place children under state care.

Cannon said the survey is widely anticipated and used by the polygamy community. The completed surveys are also distributed to candidates.

"I think (the survey) has helped us help them realize who we are and what we contribute," Cannon said.

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