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Wayne Law alumna advocates for voter rights in Michigan

June 16, 2014

Sheila Cummings, a 2002 alumna of Wayne State University Law School, is an expert on election law.

Since January 2013, she has served as Oakland County’s deputy clerk and register of deeds. From 2009 until she took that position, she was the Democratic legal counsel for the Michigan House of Representatives, counseling lawmakers on election law, campaign finance issues and a variety of other legal issues.

As a law student, she didn’t see herself in that role.

“In fact, when I was in law school, I was not even aware that a job such as legal counsel for the state House existed,” said Cummings, who lives in Detroit. “The advantage of a law degree is the variety of jobs available to law graduates. When I graduated, I knew I was interested in a combination of law, policy and politics. Working in and around elections has afforded me the opportunity to make a career out of the combination of those passions.”

She started sparking dialogue on policy and politics even as a law student, working for one of Wayne Law’s scholarly legal journals.

“My favorite experience in law school was planning and coordinating the annual symposiums as a staff member for The Journal of Law in Society,” Cummings said. “Each year’s symposium provided the law school with a unique opportunity to engage the Detroit community in discussions on social justice issues.”

After graduation, she worked as an associate with Jaffe Raitt Heuer & Weiss PC in Detroit, practicing in a variety of litigation matters, and served as lead attorney on a civil rights lawsuit for the Eastern District of Michigan’s Federal Bar Association’s Pro-Bono Program.

The House Democratic Caucus recruited Cummings from Jaffe Raitt Heuer & Weiss PC to serve in her first stint as Democratic legal counsel. In 2007, she took a job as a staff attorney for NARAL Pro-Choice America in Washington, D.C. Cummings’ undergraduate degree from Albion College was in women’s studies and English. From NARAL, she went to the National Women’s Law Center in Washington, D.C., as a senior advisor before returning to Michigan to serve as the House majority counsel.

“When I worked in the state House, I staffed the elections committee,” Cummings said. “For that committee, I worked on election reforms that would make voting easier and more accessible.”

Now, as a deputy clerk overseeing elections, she works on a legislative committee with other county clerks across the state advocating for election law reform, including online voter registration and no-reason absentee voting. The committee also advocates for changes to Michigan election law to make absentee voting easier for first-time voters, especially for college students who are frequently away at school and not able to travel to their home polling place on Election Day.

“Voting is a fundamental right, and instead of discouraging and disenfranchising voters, as we are currently seeing in voter suppression efforts in state legislatures across the country, we should be striving to make voting easier and more accessible for all eligible citizens in Michigan,” Cummings said.

Legislation to change Michigan election law to allow voters to request an absentee ballot for any reason (not just for the restricted justifications currently in law) has been introduced in every legislative session for almost 20 years, and has yet to pass, she said.

“One of the more challenging aspects of overseeing elections is working within Michigan’s antiquated election law,” Cummings said. “Legislative changes are needed to allow for better participation in the voting process and to keep up with the changing technologies surrounding elections. The most satisfying aspect of overseeing elections is seeing people participate in democracy and having their voices heard no matter where they fall on the political spectrum.”