When Gilbert politicos handicap the mayoral race in the March 10 primary, the first issue many look at is not fiscal policy or prior experience but what faith the candidates embraces and how likely those who sit next to them in the pews are likely to vote.
Even though Gilbert Mayor Steve Berman defeated former Mayor Cynthia Dunham, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in one-on-one matches in 2001 and 2005, many observers say this time around the town's most historically prominent faith community will be a key player in the primary.
"It's not a myth," Berman said of the LDS influence on elections. "The simple fact is the Mormon community is very committed to our democracy, and they see voting as something more than just a nice thing to do."
This time, Berman faces five challengers, three of whom are LDS. Some say it's possible the three could split the LDS vote, a possible advantage for Berman.
Town Councilman Don Skousen, an LDS member who is running against Berman, said the emphasis on the LDS vote is a holdover from when Gilbert was smaller and members did cast a larger percentage of votes in local elections.
But any tendency that LDS members have to vote for people of the same faith is more assumption than fact, he said, and it's not something he wants to see happen in any case.
"If you vote for somebody because of their religion, you're a bigot," Skousen said. "If you vote against somebody because of their religion, you're a bigot."
Precise statistics how many members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints live in Gilbert are difficult to come by, though the Salt Lake City-based church plans to build a temple in the town. The U.S. Census Bureau does not track demographic information on religious denominations within communities.
Don Evans, a spokesman for the LDS in Arizona, said he could only give an estimate based on the 61 wards, or congregations, in Gilbert. Most of them likely have between 400 and 450 members, he said. That would put the town's overall LDS population at roughly 26,000, or 12 percent of Gilbert's estimated population of 215,000.
Since 2005, voter turnout in Gilbert has been between 8 percent and 10 percent.
But religious identity isn't a huge factor once people get to the polls or receive their ballot in the mail, Berman said: "They do have minds of their own."
Dave Petersen, an LDS member and former town councilman running for mayor, rarely concurs with Skousen on anything. But he agrees that a shared religion isn't his favored way to win votes.
"I applaud people who look at the issues and know the proper role of government, rather than looking at whether somebody goes to church with you or not," he said.
It was the entry of John Lewis, a former president of one of Gilbert's LDS stakes, a geographical subdivision of the church that is composed of several wards, which probably raised the frequency of discussion of the Mormon influence on town elections.
Berman has suggested that most of Lewis' backing remains within the LDS community, to which Lewis responds, "I don't think that's the case, because if it were, I wouldn't be receiving endorsements from both the Chamber (of Commerce) and the Small Business Alliance, which are very different groups. They see me as a candidate with business and leadership experience."
Bill Norton, an LDS member who ran unsuccessfully for Town Council two years ago, said fellow church-goers tend to vote at a little bit higher percentage than the general population.
"About 8 to 10 percent of registered voters turn out and vote and if that total is 8 to 10 percent, the Mormon total is probably 10 to 12 percent," Norton said.
But he said the church's influence tends to show up more strongly in the candidate roster than in voter turnout.
"LDS members do serve as volunteers within the church organizations, and that easily spills over into the city they're from," he said. "That's obviously part of our culture. So Mormons can appear to have more influence over politics, over elections, than they really do."
Currently, three out of the seven Town Council members are LDS.
Norton said the split he's seen this election cycle has nothing to do with religious faith and everything to do with an anti-incumbency split between Lewis and Petersen, who have both been instrumental in the organization of the town's Constitution Week USA event that Norton co-chairs.
Norton said, "I think the Mormon vote is just as divided as the rest of Gilbert. Mormons tend to be social and fiscal conservatives but there are varying degrees of that."