Voters in town once run by polygamous sect probably broke the law when they cast ballots, prosecutor says, but charges are unlikely

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune Lori Barlow with some of her cattle in Colorado City, Ariz., Tuesday May 9, 2017.

A county prosecutor says there’s evidence that as many as 22 people who were improperly registered to vote in Colorado City, Ariz., cast ballots in the 2018 general election.

Mohave County Attorney Matt Smith said more could have illegally voted in that election, but investigators gathered evidence of only 15 to 22 improper voters in a town where the Census Bureau says there are about 4,800 people. Smith does not expect to file any charges partly because he can’t find all those voters.

“The main thing is for it not to happen again,” Smith said, “because I don’t want it to impact future elections.”

Colorado City and adjacent Hildale, Utah, population 2,900, are the longtime home of the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. After three candidates friendly to the FLDS won seats on the Colorado City Town Council in the Nov. 6, 2018, election, questions arose of whether some of the ballots were cast by people who no longer lived at the addresses on their voter registrations or no longer lived in Colorado City at all.

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lori Barlow, center, talks to Christine Katas, right, after a UEP hearing in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, June 18, 2019.

Lori Barlow acknowledges she was one person whose address was out of date yet voted anyway. She still lives in Colorado City in what she says is temporary housing.

Smith and Mohave County, Barlow said, have failed to appreciate the housing challenges in Colorado City, where many people loyal to imprisoned FLDS President Warren Jeffs have chosen to be evicted rather than deal with a local land trust that owns many of the homes.

“I did not change my address,” Barlow said, “because I had nothing to change it to.”

Marion Timpson, who missed a seat on the Colorado City Town Council, said he appreciates Mohave County’s investigation, but he believes offenders should be prosecuted if they voted in violation of the law.

“You’re trying to create a democracy where a theocracy existed,” Timpson said. “Someone needs to be held accountable.”

Who controls municipal government has been an issue in Hildale and Colorado City, collectively known as Short Creek, since they were incorporated. A federal jury in 2014 and another in 2016 ruled after civil trials that the towns effectively functioned under the direction of Jeffs and his loyalists and discriminated against nonbelievers. A judge appointed monitors to review the municipalities’ functions and make regular reports to him.

The FLDS also lost control of a land trust, called the United Effort Plan, that once owned most of the homes and commercial properties in the two towns. Those parcels were handed over to the trust as an act of Mormon fundamentalist faith, and the FLDS have refused to sign agreements and pay fees that would allow them to remain in the homes.

Meanwhile, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people have left the FLDS in the past 20 years, changing the composition of Short Creek. A slate of non-FLDS candidates, including one for mayor, won elections in Hildale in 2017.

Six months after the FLDS-backed candidates prevailed in Colorado City in 2018, Smith asked the Mohave County Board of Supervisors for $8,000 to investigate accusations of voter fraud. The supervisors agreed.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Mohave County Attorney Matt Smith speaks after Colorado City, Ariz. resident Kelly Fischer is convicted of two felony counts: sexual conduct with a minor and conspiracy to commit sexual conduct with a minor, July 7, 2006. The trial was being held at the Mohave County Superior Court in Kingman, Ariz.

In a phone interview, Smith said investigators looked at a list of about 30 names supplied by Colorado City residents concerned about the vote. Investigators knocked on the listed addresses.

In many of those cases, Smith said, the person living at the home told investigators something to the effect of “ 'Yeah, I know who that is, but they don’t live here and haven’t lived here during the time the election took place.’ ”

Investigators were unable to find and question many of these voters, Smith said, and that’s one reason he doesn’t plan to file charges. It could be that the voters, like Barlow, reside at a different address in Colorado City. That would still be a violation of Arizona law, Smith said, but not one he is inclined to prosecute.

Smith said he would prosecute someone who permanently resided out of state — and farther away than Hildale — and voted in Colorado City, but he hasn’t been able to find such a case. Arizona law makes “knowingly” voting in a city or precinct to which that person is not entitled to vote a felony punishable by up to a year in prison.

Smith said he found no evidence FLDS faithful conspired to swing the election.

“Without finding the people,” Smith said, “talking to them and knowing what they did, it would be sheer speculation to guess.”

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune Onlookers on the route as the Colorado City and Hildale Fourth of July Parade makes its way down Central Street in Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., Saturday July 2, 2016.

It’s also unclear if any improper registrations tilted the results in Colorado City or elsewhere in Arizona. The Town Council election was at large, with the top three finishers taking seats.

Third-place finisher Joanne Shapley received 208 votes — 39 more than fourth-place finisher Timpson.

Barlow said she and a group called Voices for Dignity, consisting of FLDS followers and their supporters, spoke to officials at Mohave County before the election. They were told they could vote under a provision in Arizona law that allows homeless and displaced people to cast ballots. However, Barlow said, it was not explained to them how that provision also requires voters to change their registered address to a public location such as a homeless shelter, a post office or a street corner.

Barlow said Voices for Dignity held an education campaign before the election, telling people they needed to be registered to vote at their current addresses when possible. She said some FLDS followers chose not to vote because they didn’t know which address to list and feared that if they cast ballots, “their integrity would be called into question.”