Polygamists poll Utah candidates for views on outlawed practice
SALT LAKE CITY A voting bloc has emerged that campaign managers may not have anticipated: Utah polygamists. Communities in Harmony made up of Utah-based groups that practice polygamy polled candidates, from judges to members of Congress, and labeled them "open minded" or "negative" on the outlawed practice.

A summary has been mailed to candidates and more than 1,000 polygamists, said Carlene Cannon of Communities in Harmony. "It's not an issue that most politicians like to talk about," she said. "But we're here and we have a right to exist and we wanted to let (candidates) know."

Polygamy is illegal in Utah. But authorities tread lightly, typically choosing to prosecute sex crimes that involve polygamous men and minor girls.

Utah's dominant religion, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, brought polygamy here in the 1840s, but disavowed it 50 years later. It now excommunicates polygamists.

But Utah's fundamentalists, who are estimated to number more than 30,000, believe polygamy is central to their glorification in heaven.

Communities in Harmony polled candidates in 256 races for Congress, the Utah Legislature, the judiciary and Salt Lake County district attorney.

Among the organization's questions:
  • If the U.S. Supreme Court said in 2003 that homosexuals are not criminals, should polygamists still be classified as such?

  • If polygamy is a crime, should Utah prosecute all adulterers, fornicators and people who cohabitate, and what is the difference?

  • Utah has more than one openly gay legislator. Should polygamists have the same right to hold public offices?
The questions focused on various aspects of Utah and federal law, and asked if candidates were personally acquainted with any polygamists.

"In the past, it's not been easy to find out how candidates feel about polygamy, so we decided to just do our own research," said Cannon, who is a member of a polygamous community called the Davis County Cooperative Society.

U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and two of Utah's three House members did not respond to the survey. Hatch's opponent, Pete Ashdown, was rated "open-minded," along with LaVar Christensen, a Republican state lawmaker who is challenging U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah.

Matheson, whose district includes polygamous communities on the Utah-Arizona border, was rated "negative."

Matheson's spokeswoman, Alyson Heyrend, said Matheson did not receive a survey.

"It's hard to comment. They did not talk to the congressman about any of their issues. We do not know what their criteria was," she said.

Christensen was not immediately available for comment Wednesday.

More than half the candidates, 135, didn't respond to the survey. Of those who did, 65 were rated "open-minded," and 29 were rated as having "negative" ideas about polygamy.

Another 20 candidates hold "mixed opinions," and six of 24 candidates for judicial seats were rated as "will be fair."

A Utah political strategist, LaVar Webb, said the high number of candidates who failed to respond wasn't surprising. Polygamy is not an issue most politicians want to touch, he said, nor would they welcome an endorsement.

But the votes of polygamists "could have an impact if they were really motivated, particularly in a low-turnout election like this one is likely to be," Webb said.

State Sen. Darin Peterson, R-Nephi, was rated "open-minded." He is running for re-election in Juab County, where polygamist Tom Green was convicted in 2001 of bigamy and child rape.

"With those kind of numbers," he said of thousands of polygamists, "I think it's fair for them to ask the question, 'What are you going to do with us, if anything?' And it's one we shouldn't dodge because it's not politically expedient."
Originally published October 25, 2006