Utah polygamous border town’s municipal election will have oversight

SALT LAKE CITY -- November's municipal election in the polygamous border town of Hildale will be run by Washington County and monitored by the Utah Lt. Governor's Office, FOX 13 has confirmed.

It comes as the community gears up for a high-stakes election that could unseat members of the Fundamentalist LDS Church from town government.

"It was Hildale’s decision. They want to make sure they have a fair and valid election and people don’t have any concern," said Blake Hamilton, an attorney representing Hildale.

Young women play in the streets in Hildale, Utah. (Image by Aaron Kimbell, FOX 13 News)

For years, Hildale's municipal government has been made up of members of the FLDS Church. This year's municipal election could be a seismic shift politically for the town. Three council seats and the mayor's office are up for election, with ex-FLDS members who have returned to the community filing to unseat the incumbents.

Ex-church members claim Hildale's population is now has more of them, than those loyal to FLDS leader Warren Jeffs.

Mayor Philip Barlow is facing a challenge from ex-church member Donia Jessop. There are four candidates for a pair of four-year term council seats, and three for a two-year term.

Leaders in Hildale and neighboring Colorado City, Ariz., have faced accusations in the past of loyalty to Jeffs, who is imprisoned for child sex assault. The U.S. Department of Justice sued the towns, accusing them of discriminating against non-FLDS members in government services. (A jury sided with the feds and a judge has ordered reforms.)

Given concerns and past complaints, Utah Lt. Governor Spencer Cox's office also plans to provide some oversight for the municipal election. State elections director Mark Thomas said they have heard complaints for years about elections in the towns, including claims of voter fraud or pressure to vote for certain candidates.

Jessop, who is running to be Hildale's first woman and ex-FLDS mayor, claimed in an interview with FOX 13 last month that when she was in the church, she was told who to vote for.

"It's so un-American and unconstitutional, it's like, 'How does this happen in America?' But that's what's been happening," she said.

Thomas said the Lt. Governor's Office has looked into complaints in the past but were unable to substantiate whether anything criminal occurred.

"We weren't able to determine whether those were legitimate allegations," he told FOX 13. "We felt we needed to step in and closely monitor the situation to ensure the laws are being appropriately followed."

Hamilton said Hildale decided to have Washington County administer the vote-by-mail election after finding the costs comparable. He also said it would spare Hildale the headache of complaints of an unfair election.

Thomas said the state elections office wants to ensure fair elections whether in Hildale or anywhere else.

"The Lt. Governor wants to ensure we have confidence in our elections and having the integrity and the trust in the system," he said. "A part of that is having an appropriate supervisory authority in reviewing all of that to ensure it is a fair election."