Bizarre voting trends emerge again in Colorado City

Tucson Sentinel/April 2, 2015

By Evan Wyloge

Phoenix -- Hundreds of voters in Colorado City made nearly identical choices when casting ballots in the November 2014 election, continuing a bizarre trend where a block of voters didn’t choose any candidate in some races, but voted almost 100 percent for an individual candidate in others.

Republican Secretary of State Michele Reagan, the Republican slate for Corporation Commission and Republican U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar each earned 97 percent of the vote in Colorado City. Gov. Doug Ducey and Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas, also Republicans, each earned 95 percent of the vote.

When it came to picking a state senator or retaining Arizona Supreme Court justices, Colorado City voters – by the hundreds – didn’t cast a vote. And in the races for attorney general and the Arizona House, about 200 people who otherwise voted Republican up and down the ticket cast ballots for particular Democrats.

Election data shows voters tend to choose a candidate in races at the top of the ballot and then make fewer choices as they come to less-familiar politicians, also known as “drop-off.” And it’s uncommon for candidates to win more than 90 percent of the vote.

But in the small town that straddles the Arizona-Utah border, also home to the most infamous polygamist sect of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, those norms haven’t applied in at least a decade. Colorado City voters act unlike those in any other area, and have since at least 2004, an analysis of election data by the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting shows.

Election officials don’t have an explanation.

“I feel that people, in general, pick and choose, and they choose not to vote to show discontent,” said Mohave County Elections Director Allen Tempert. “It’s a small community, and they’re all tied together. They must think in very similar ways.”

Tempert said he became interested in the topic after similar findings from the 2012 election, but that Mohave County poll observers only saw normal voting behavior: Voters coming to the polling place and casting ballots.

“They would have come to me if they found some hanky-panky in the process,” he said.

In the majority of precincts in Mohave County, between 69 and 80 percent of voters cast a vote for Arizona Sen. Kelli Ward, who ran unopposed. But only 56.8 percent of Colorado City voters voted in the race, a lower participation rate than in any other precinct in the county, and within 1 percentage point of the oddly low participation rate in the same race in 2012. That year, 57.6 percent of Colorado City voters cast a ballot in the race. In 2012, when turnout was about twice what it was last year, around 600 voters dropped out of that race. In 2014, it was 225.

The Lake Havasu City Republican said she hasn’t been to Colorado City since her first election in 2012.

Voters there supported Ward’s primary opponent that year, former Arizona Rep. Nancy McLain, who came in third overall but won in Colorado City with 91.5 percent of the 2012 primary vote.

Ward theorized that since then, the community has chosen not to support her, but Ward also said she doesn’t know how so many people vote in such similar patterns.

Rep. Sonny Borrelli, another Lake Havasu City Republican, won a large portion of the Colorado City vote during his first election in 2012 but saw a sizable drop in 2014. In the race where voters select two candidates, about 200 Colorado City voters opted not to vote for Borelli, and instead split their vote between the other Republican, Regina Cobb, and only one of two Democrats running, Beth Weisser.

Despite the near-unanimous vote for most statewide candidates, and a near-100 percent voter participation in most statewide races, an out-of-the-ordinary 10 percent of Colorado City decided not to vote in the attorney general's race. And among those who did, about 200 voters again cast a ballot for Democrat Felecia Rotellini.

The two Democrats, Rotellini and Weisser, got around 200 votes, while every other Democrat running in a partisan election earned around 15 votes in the precinct.

Colorado City voters voted in a much higher than normal rate in the clerk of the Superior Court race, and at a much lower rate than normal in the Arizona Supreme Court retention questions.

The Colorado City voting precinct includes Colorado City and the city of Centennial Park, each comprising about half of the voting precinct's population. Centennial Park isn't associated with the FLDS church, Borrelli said, which may explain why the block voting accounts for about half of the total voters.

The vote for Proposition 122, which declares the right of Arizona to restrict state or local authorities from administering or cooperating with federal directives that violate the U.S. Constitution, narrowly lost in the Colorado City voting precinct, splitting the precinct almost evenly.

Hazel Zitting, a Colorado City resident who monitored the Colorado City poll as a volunteer for the Mohave County Elections Department, said she didn't see anything out of the ordinary on Election Day.

Zitting, who said she is not part of the FLDS church, said the church leadership is keenly aware of politicians who are opposed to the polygamist lifestyle condoned by the church, or who have pursued the community legally, and that the voting patterns may reflect that awareness.

Borrelli said he had heard stories that Warren Jeffs, the now-imprisoned leader of the Colorado City church, has given voting instructions to the community in the past.

"That's the rumor," Borrelli said, "He would tell them to just not vote."

But he said he can't see how it would be possible now, as Jeffs has mostly been absent from the community since 2007 due to several criminal investigations that culminated in a 2011 sexual assault conviction, that a block of hundreds of voters act so similarly.

Isaac Wyler, a former member of the Colorado City FLDS church said he saw it happen first-hand.

"The FLDS told us who to vote for and who not to vote for, or if it doesn't matter and to leave it blank," Wyler, who said he's been "kicked out" of the church since 2004, described. "They believe in doing things in unison."

Wyler said church leaders would summon the community to a meeting on upcoming elections, held at a church facility, and most of the regular church-going community attended.

"You would come with the little books you get in the mail," Wyler said. "A higher up in the church would stand at the front and tell you which way to vote."

Northern Arizona University political science Professor Fred Solop said he doesn't find the unusual voting patterns surprising.

"The Mormon Church there plays a very central role in organizing social life, including cueing people about when to vote and who to vote for," Solop said.

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