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Polygamous communities produce voter guide

Polygamous communities produce voter guide

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SALT LAKE CITY (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.

To do so, Communities in Harmony, an alliance of representatives from various Utah polygamous groups, has issued a voter 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. Known commonly as Mormons, the faith brought the practice here 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, including the successful criminal prosecutions of several men, have many fundamentalists placing a renewed focus on participating in the political process. In 2005, the Utah courts took over a polygamous church's property trust and this year, a highly publicized raid on the same sect's Eldorado, Texas ranch left more than 400 children in state custody.

"I think people are feeling vulnerable," said Mary Batchelor, executive director of the advocacy group Principle Voices. "They are feeling it in their personal lives with their neighbors, in their kids' schools and in their work environment. The question is: Do they come out? Or do they stay quiet and risk that assumptions are made?"

The voter guide is the fourth produced. This year the survey 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 voters 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, an informal survey estimates 37,000 polygamists and their children live in Utah, which has a population of about 2.7 million.

The voter project initially 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.

Earlier surveys labeled candidates either "open minded" or "negative" in their attitudes about plural families. The 2008 survey editor gave respondents an up or down endorsement, Cannon said.

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 in state offices, including Senate and House of Representatives races failed to 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.

"For most people in this position, they're more likely to say they would rather not be on the record than they would be having this discussion and possibly having something look embarrassing."

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, however, did answer and earned 9 points and a thumbs up for her responses.

Hill contends that 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.

John Rendell, a Democratic candidate for the Legislature, said he just didn't have time to answer the survey.

"I had no idea what questions they were going to ask. It was just a blanket 'No.' "

Twelve candidates from both parties refused to answer survey questions, including some sitting members of the House and Senate who are members of Utah's Republican leadership.

Messages left by The Associated Press with several candidates who refused to answer survey questions were not immediately returned, including one to Republican state Rep. Becky Lockhart, whose husband is chairman of the Utah Republican Party.

Some who responded to the survey said while they believe polygamy should be prosecuted, they shouldn't be afraid to answer questions from constituents or voters.

"I want to talk to all Utahns that are in the district," said 3rd Congressional District Republican nominee Jason Chaffetz, who earned a thumbs up from the group over two opponents who also responded. "I think ultimately, people want somebody they can communicate with. I like to think that no matter who people are I'd be willing to meet and talk with them about their issues, even though I disagree."

Cannon said the survey is widely anticipated and used by the polygamy community. More than 1,000 were distributed by mail and e-mail.

The 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.

Batchelor said she believes polygamous families hold fairly conservative values and in the past have trended toward supporting Republican candidates.

"But I think a lot of them are disenchanted now," she said. "They are taking a look at their options and other candidates."

"You only have yourself to blame if you don't speak up," Batchelor said.

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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