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The divisiveness kept him awake ... until he found a cause

Bothered by the exclusiveness of closed primary elections, ordinary citizen Bruce Cummings became president of People4Utah to head a campaign trying to open the primaries and level the playing field

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Bruce Cummings, Tami Fillmore and Bryson and Jan Garbett pose for photos at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, Sept. 25, 2023. They are part of People4Utah, a group advocating for making primary elections in Utah open instead of closed.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Bruce Cummings was having a hard time sleeping, when just the opposite should have been the case. 

He’s 64 — the new 44. In December he retired, after selling the family hardware business — the one he spent his life building up — for a nice profit. I’ve known Bruce for a long time; he skis, bicycles, fly-fishes, plays golf, has season tickets to the nationally ranked Utes, loves to travel. His and Michelle’s kids are grown and squared away. Their last one, Audrey, enrolled at the U. this year and moved into the dorms, eager to be independent. 

So what’s the problem?

It’s his country. 

He thinks the divisiveness, the polarization, the discord, the partisanship, the extremism, the anger and demonization of those who don’t have similar views, the direction our democracy is headed — all of that — is worse than he’s ever seen it.

When he finally didn’t have to worry about the business, the kids, paying the mortgage, the Utes, his head would hit the pillow — and that’s what kept him awake.

One morning he called his cousin Jan and her husband Bryson Garbett. They’re political people. He could vent to them. They’d listen, and at the very least they would commiserate.

Ever heard the one about being careful what you wish for?

Not only did the Garbetts listen to what Bruce had to say, they had an antidote for his concerns. He needed a cause, and they knew a cause that needed him.

Within two weeks Bruce Cummings was appointed president of a nonprofit organization called People4Utah.

Its goal is the same as his: cut out the extremism and the divisiveness in politics.

People4Utah thinks a major way to help do that is by having primary elections that are open to all the people.

Closed primaries — where only registered party members are allowed to vote in their party’s primary — widens the divide by putting the power in the hands of the few rather than the many; and keeps it there. As a result, the general population feels marginalized, ignored, alienated, unimportant. And there goes democracy as we know it.

Utah is one of 16 states in the union that hold closed primaries. What that translates to in the Beehive State is that the dominant party determines the vast majority of office holders. Also, research shows that 81% of elections in Utah are decided by less than 17% of the voters, and in some races less than 1%. This leads to abysmal voter turnout and election results that are not aligned with voters in general.

Trace that back to the caucus system that determines who gets on the ballot in the first place, and then follow the system through a closed primary where only Republicans (or Democrats) can vote, and it’s easy to see why.

When Bruce studied People4Utah’s statistics and research, he knew he wanted to get involved.

It had nothing to do with his personal views, or with any kind of bias against one party or the other. He’s voted Republican plenty in his life, and every now and then for Democrats. He supported Mitt Romney for president. He’s an American capitalist. He considers himself a moderate. He’s got nothing against Republicans or Democrats, either one. It’s the system that’s the problem.

“We don’t want to appear to be partisan,” he adds, “what we’re proposing is actually the opposite of partisanship. It’s being inclusive. If we continue to not involve a majority of the people in the political process, and it’s just a small group that dictates what goes on in our politics, that just continues to accentuate the divisiveness.

“I feel like there are a lot of people like me, who feel they don’t have a place in politics, and just want to vote for who they want to vote for.”

Particularly troubling to People4Utah, and to Bruce, is the Utah Republican Party’s recent decision to close the 2024 primary.

Their crusade is to increase voter participation by inviting all voters to all levels of the elections.

“We are not trying to boss the parties around,” says Bruce. “They are private entities and can choose to run their business as they see fit. But we believe if the state is going to sponsor a ballot, all voters should be invited.”

“The founding principle that anchors the United States of America is the notion that people can govern themselves,” Bruce continues. “And how do they govern themselves? By selecting the people they want to represent them, and right now there are a lot of obstacles to being able to do that. With everything going on in this critical presidential race coming up, it’s a slap in the face for anybody who wants to vote for who they want to vote for.”

So now that he’s got a board to keep happy, fundraising efforts to oversee, and the responsibility of making sure those, like Tami Fillmore and Rodger Bailey, who have led the charge for People4Utah, have the resources they need — how’s all this helped Bruce’s insomnia?

“At night, I now go to sleep thinking ‘what have I done?’” he says, laughing. “But I wake up in the morning energized, knowing I have something to do other than just worry about it.”

Correction: A previous version reported the Utah Legislature made the decision to close the 2024 Primary. The change was made by the Utah Republican Party.