“You saw him out more than anybody”: Aghogho Edevbie brings his voting rights passion from streets of Detroit to Department of State
As deputy secretary of state, the longtime community activist and lawyer is focused on the legislative push for a Michigan Voting Rights Act and implementing Prop 2 voting reforms.
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The child of Nigerian immigrants, Aghogho Edevbie grew up enjoying a level of democracy that his parents could only dream of.
That appreciation of his rights as a U.S. citizen, especially the right to vote, has infused the work of the longtime Detroit voting rights activist and lawyer, who was earlier this year named Michigan’s deputy secretary of state.
“I believe every citizen in our country has a duty, in their own way, to keep our democracy strong,” Edevbie said. “I am doing my part, especially at a time when our democratic institutions are under attack.”
For Edevbie, doing his part started with pounding the pavement of Detroit’s neighborhoods back in 2010 during his law school days, helping residents register to vote. Now, in his role helping oversee election systems in a key swing state with nearly 8 million voters, Edevbie brings not only legal knowledge but also a valuable background in political activism, say his former colleagues, other activists, and local public officials.
Edevbie, 35, is among the highest-ranking African American men to serve in the secretary of state’s office since Richard Austin, Michigan’s first Black secretary of state, who was in office from 1971 to 1995.
“I hope that people see me and realize that there is a place for everyone in every corner of the government,” said Edevbie.
Since his arrival at the Department of State in March, Edevbie has been joined by Heaster Wheeler, a former assistant secretary of state from 2019 to 2022 who last month returned as a senior advisor to Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, deepening the department’s ranks of Black men.
A lifelong Detroiter, Edevbie graduated from the University of Detroit Jesuit High School, earned a bachelor’s degree and law degree from the University of Michigan, has practiced law with Detroit area firms and for the Wayne County government, and taught at a high school in Tanzania. Edevbie was most recently state director of All Voting Is Local for three years, and ran for the Michigan House of Representatives in the 6th District in 2018.
Hannah Fried, executive director for All Voting Is Local, said her former colleague’s experience will make him effective.
“Aghogho’s got virtually unparalleled understanding of Michigan election law and practice — but even more than that, he’s practical. He’s always considering what will actually work for voters, for elections officials, and for the many other stakeholders who make our democracy run,” she said.
Among Edevbie’s early memories of his activism was Election Day 2010, when he arrived at an Ann Arbor voting site to work as a poll challenger only to find at least a dozen voters waiting for the polling place to open, even though it was after the official start time.
“I quickly got the attention of the poll workers and told them they had to open the polling location. After some initial back-and-forth, they realized that polls had to open at 7 a.m. and not 8 a.m. The voters in that line all got to vote. Being able to help those voters that day got me hooked, and I have been involved in protecting voters ever since,” Edevbie recalled.
Edevbie spent years serving as a poll challenger, including as a nonpartisan representative of All Voting Is Local in 2020 at the TCF Center (now Huntington Place) in Detroit, where pro-Trump groups carried out mob-style protests of Wayne County’s absentee ballot counting boards.
“It was clear to me that many of them had little knowledge of election law, and were only trying to find avenues to disrupt the count and meet their preconceived notions,” Edevbie said, describing himself as “disappointed, angry, and disgusted” by the disruptive protesters.
Edevbie said the undaunted work of the counting boards that night is “an example of the resilience of our democracy,” the kind of effort that “motivates me every day. ”
A Focus on Legislative Action
As deputy secretary of state, one of the highest-ranking election officials in Michigan, Edevbie is part of the department’s decision-making over the voting process. Edevbie says he sees his new job as helping ensure everyone has a direct path to the ballot box, especially by preventing voter intimidation and misinformation.
At the center of that is helping to win passage of the forthcoming Michigan Voting Rights Act, a series of measures in the works from Benson that would, among other actions, make it a felony to harass and intimidate election workers and voters, or to deceive voters. The legislation will also seek to provide adequate funding to local clerks for safety and security expenses.
Edevbie said the bill, which is expected to be introduced this summer, is a much-needed piece of legislation.
“The federal law has been undermined by the Supreme Court,” said Edevbie of recent rulings striking down parts of the federal Voting Rights Act. “Our intent with this bill is to put into place a structure and framework that protects voters for future generations to come.”
Edevbie said he will also be working with the Legislature on a bill to implement the voting reforms of Proposal 2, such as early in-person voting, and on all election-related budget requests. His job also will include working with clerks and community organizations on outreach and education, especially improving the student voting experience by reducing Election Day lines on campuses.
Michigan topped other states in having the highest rate of youth voters in the November 2022 election, according to the state. Student turnout was high especially at the University of Michigan and Michigan State University, where students crowded campus polling places, leading to hours-long waits and pushing voting late into the night.
“Exactly What We Need Right Now”
Wayne County Board of Commissioner Jonathan Kinloch says that in addition to his legal background, Edevbie brings a great deal of dedication to voting rights. He is a “boots on the ground” activist who stayed close to community groups and voters who often had fears and complaints about possible voter intimidation, Kinloch said. Edevbie, for instance, organized Zoom instructional meetings and panels last year to help voters understand voting and election laws.
“It was him and his foresight convening those,” said Kinloch, who was previously an election official on the Wayne County Board of Canvassers.
That was how Edevbie brought together neighborhood groups and got them engaged in conversation about voting, Kinloch said. If there was a local government meeting, such as the Board of Canvassers, with only three members of the public there, Edevbie would be one of them.
“He was on the streets. You saw him at Huntington Place. You saw him at election polling places. You saw him out more than anybody. … He’s truly dedicated to the effort. A lot of people talk about it, but Aghogho is really about it … doing the work.”
Nancy Wang, the executive director of Voters Not Politicians, worked with Edevie when he was at All Voting Is Local to launch a website in 2020 showing voters across the state where to find ballot dropboxes in their communities.
“It’s an example of how he invests in tools to help voters in different ways,” said Wang, who called Edevbie “exactly what we need right now.”
Edevbie has dedicated his career to voters and has always focused on how to protect voting rights, said Wang, who sees him as a “natural leader” who gets things done.
“Michigan has passed so many voting-rights advances in the last four years and now we need to implement them and that takes a lot of people working together in the same direction. I think Aghogho as deputy Secretary of State will be a kind of natural leader to fill that role.”
Oralandar Brand-Williams is a senior reporter for Votebeat. Contact Oralandar at email@example.com.