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A polygamous sect may be losing its grip on a small Utah town

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In a town straddling the border between Utah and Arizona, a polygamous sect may be losing its grip on the local government.

The small town of Hildale, long governed by members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), is set to have its first female, first non-member mayor, along with a few non-FLDS council members. Donia Jessop left the church just five years ago, and vows to make Hildale a place that accepts everyone.

Mayoral candidate Donia Jessop had a strong lead in Tuesday's tally, counting 167 ballots cast of the 367 registered voters. Because Hildale voters mailed in their ballots, it may take up to two weeks before final results are known. Jessop ran against sitting Mayor Philip Barlow.

Donia Jessop
In this Thursday, Oct. 26, 2017 photo, Donia Jessop holds her mayoral campaign sign outside her store in Colorado City, Ariz. Campaign signs are unusual in a town where elections have long been quietly decided behind the scenes, with hand-picked men from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints running unopposed. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

But FLDS followers, accustomed to having their own representatives run for office unopposed, are worried the change will be a major blow to their way of life. The FLDS has about 10,000 members, most of whom reside in Hildale and neighboring Colorado City, Arizona. The two bordering towns have a combined population of about 7,800, members and non-members included.

AP10ThingsToSee APTOPIX Polygamy Town
A girl swings a chain as she stands with others in a playground in Colorado City, Ariz. on Dec. 16, 2014. The sister cities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, once run by polygamist leader Warren Jeffs, are split between loyalists who still believe he is a victim of religious persecution and defectors who are embracing government efforts to pull the town into modern society. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

The isolated community within the region lives a cult-like existence. The distinctive exterior – women wearing conservative, prairie style dresses, and a distaste for modern culture – was revealed to have a sinister secret life.

In 2011, Warren Jeffs was sentenced to life in prison for sexually assaulting two minors he believed to be his "spiritual wives." Many FLDS followers still consider him their prophet, and Jeffs maintains his hold on the sect, as exemplified by his 2011 directive banning sex for all members, with the threat of excommunication for those who defied the order.

Warren Jeffs
A law enforcement official stands by as Polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs, left, arrives at the Tom Green County Courthouse, Thursday, July 28, 2011, in San Angelo, Texas. Prosecutors claim he sexually assaulted girls he manipulated into "spiritual marriage," with defense attorneys countering that their client's religious freedoms were trampled. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

More revelations about the inner workings of the sect followed – marriages torn apart as punishment for defying the church, incest and resulting children with rare birth defects.

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Then in 2016, two federal civil juries in Phoenix found Hildale leadership guilty of discriminating against nonbelievers. Non-sect members had been denied police assistance, water hookups, and other services under religious rule. Sect leaders also faced various legal battles over other indiscretions, ranging from food stamp fraud to child labor.

APTOPIX Polygamous Town Photo Gallery
In this Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2017 photo, Lydia Ann, 8, and her mother, Norma Richter, hold hands as they pose for photographs in Colorado City, Ariz. Their community on the Utah-Arizona border has been home for more than a century to members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, a polygamous sect that is an offshoot of mainstream Mormonism. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

But the town is already beginning to change. If Jessop's lead turns into a win, a sect that was excommunicated from the Mormon church in the 1930s may now be forced to adapt to a new government.

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