Allegra Kirkland

Allegra Kirkland is a New York-based reporter for Talking Points Memo. She previously worked on The Nation’s web team and as the associate managing editor for AlterNet. Follow her on Twitter @allegrakirkland.

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Over 12 years after leaving prison on federal drug charges, David Ayala arrived at the Orange County Supervisor of Elections office on Tuesday morning to register to vote.

To his surprise, his wife had arranged for his sister to turn up at the central Florida elections building to help him celebrate this personal milestone.

“The emotions were just rampant,” Ayala told TPM in a Tuesday phone call. “My sister has always been there for me — from me being in prison to getting out — helping me, supporting me.”

“I couldn’t hold back the tears,” Ayala continued. “Everything just flashed back — all the moments, all the obstacles put in front of me.”

So it was for former criminal offenders across the state. Jan. 8 marked the first date that ex-felons were permitted to register under Amendment 4, a historic ballot amendment passed by voters in the 2018 midterms. The constitutional amendment — backed by the ACLU and Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC) —restores voting rights to all Floridians with felony convictions after they complete all terms of their sentence, including parole or probation. (Murder and sexual offenses are not covered by the amendment.)

Ayala is one of the former offenders profiled by TPM as part of our 2018 “Retreat From Democracy” series.

Joining him at the Orange County election offices were other activists, including FRRC leader Desmond Meade, the force behind Amendment 4. Meade told Mother Jones that election officials, too, shed tears as they registered former felons — some of whom were signing up to vote for the first time in their lives.

“It was a very, very emotional moment,” Meade said in a Facebook video after submitting his voter registration form. He wore a “Let My People Vote” t-shirt.

It seems that Amendment 4 activists got the “day of celebration” they hoped for on Tuesday, despite concerns that the registration process may not go so smoothly.

New Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and some lawmakers had signaled that the amendment was not yet ready to be implemented, while the secretary of state offered no guidance on how best to do so. There were also concerns that some felons might improperly register before they had actually completed all the terms of their sentence, or they may be unaware of the change in policy or scared of violating the law anew.

But organizers and some elections supervisors countered that Amendment 4 was designed to be self-executing, and that they planned to move ahead with registration come Jan. 8.

Ayala said he and others involved with the FRRC are organizing workshops throughout the state, where attorneys, local election officials, and volunteers can help former offenders clarify their status and get registered.

“I was never concerned,” Ayala told TPM about possible hiccups on Tuesday. “I was confident in the [amendment’s] language, and most importantly, because of me being involved on the calls and in the meetings, I knew we had a line of attorneys prepared for any obstacles.”

Ayala plans to vote in the 2020 elections and said he hopes that everyone involved in getting Amendment 4 passed — Republican and Democrat alike — sticks together to push for further criminal justice reform in the state legislature.

As Meade put it in a call with reporters this week, “Our campaign was never about partisan politics. It was about inclusion; it was about love; it was about placing people above politics.”

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In Louisiana, criminal offenders released from prison often linger in the purgatory of parole for years, or even decades, stripped of key civil rights. Because the Bayou State only restores voting rights to felons who complete probation or parole, some who get caught up in the system die before regaining the franchise.

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Editor’s note: We first published this article on December 19, 2018. Today, 1.4 million Florida felons who are newly eligible to vote can begin registering. But that doesn’t mean they will.

The 1.4 million number was always high.

That frequently cited figure accounted for all of the Floridians with felony convictions who could possibly have their voting rights restored under Amendment 4, a constitutional ballot amendment overwhelmingly passed by voters in the November midterms.

We’re now seeing troubling efforts from top state elections officials to slow-roll the reinfranchisement process, providing no guidance to elections supervisors and trying to get the GOP-controlled legislature involved. But notwithstanding that depressingly predictable development, other states have already showed us the complications that arise in actually getting former felons registered and out to the polls.

Everything from a lack of information and fear of violating election laws to lack of motivation or simple poverty can explain why tens of thousands of former felons in Florida won’t actually end up voting.

Blair Bowie of the Campaign Legal Center is intimately familiar with these roadblocks. Since June, Bowie has been crisscrossing Alabama working to educate and register voters about a change in state law slashing the number of “moral turpitude” crimes that once prohibited violators from voting.

Republican Secretary of State John Merill announced he would not devote any resources to informing people about the new policy, so the CLC has given one-on-one voter enrollment service to 1,600 people and trained 1,500 community leaders in how to do this work. Bowie said their efforts have only been a drop in the bucket.

Citing a study from Montgomery non-profit Alabama Appleseed, Bowie said that some 72 percent of people affected didn’t know the law had changed.

“That means tens of thousands of people who were reenfranchised have no idea there’s even the possibility of them being reenfranchised,” she said. “They’re not even looking into the possibility that the law change could apply to them.”

“If the state is just completely inactive in doing public education, the lesson from Alabama is that not everyone who has been reenfranchised is going to know about it,” Bowie said. “So if [Florida] just sit[s] back and say[s] we’re just going to let what happened happen, that will hurt a lot of people.”

Charles Zelden, an elections expert at Florida’s Nova Southeastern University, reminded TPM that Florida is a “low-tax, low-service state” unlikely to “take a strong stance in leadership on this.”

“It’s going to be up to private agencies, NGOs to take the lead in getting people registered,” Zelden said.

Zelden also brought up another major deterrent — both nationally and in Florida specifically — for former felons who may actually know about the change in policy and want to vote: money. Felony convictions make it harder to find housing and decent-paying jobs, which, in turn, make it harder for people to pay off all of the financial penalties associated with their court appearances and sentencing. Under Amendment 4, almost all financial costs related to a person’s sentence must be paid off before the individual is legally allowed to register.

“There are a bunch of people who simply can’t get clean with the state because of financial reasons,” Zelden said.

The national Republican crusade against the specter of voter fraud has also spooked former felons from casting ballots — or ended in heartbreaking consequences. In Texas, Crystal Mason is serving five years for voting in the 2016 election without knowing that her felony record for tax crimes rendered her ineligible.

Bad information from elections officials and overburdened clerks’ offices failing to confirm that an individual has completed all the requirements under Amendment 4 put people at risk of accruing another felony charge for exercising their voting rights. Stories like Mason’s make them feel it’s not worth the effort to try.

“If someone accidentally registers or tries to vote, that can become an opportunity for voter suppression if there are malicious election officials or district attorneys,” Bowie said. “And that can scare a lot of people away — if there’s no education but there is this kind of rumor out there that you could get in trouble.”

Despite this litany of serious concerns, everything is not as bleak as it appears. The groups behind the ballot measure created a statewide, bipartisan coalition with real clout. They have managed to gain sustained national media attention and are already working to address the roadblocks the state is tossing up. The state ACLU chapter and the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC) have discussed creating a fund to help former felons pay off their fines, for example.

“We believe that there’s real power in the community staying unified,” FRRC political director Neil Volz told TPM.

And while restoring the civil rights of all 1.4 million deserving Floridians is the real point of the amendment, the smaller subset who do vote can still have a real impact on the outcome of the swing state’s races.

After all, Ron DeSantis and Rick Scott won their races by a margin of under 40,000 ballots.

“They’ll have an impact beyond their numbers,” Zelden said. “If the race is close, their votes can be the difference between winning and losing. You don’t need 1.5 million felons to vote and participate for them to make a difference in the outcomes of elections in Florida.”

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The extended holiday break was relatively quiet on the Russia investigation front. But sporadic new court filings hinted at behind-the-scenes activities related to several mysterious cases linked to special counsel Robert Mueller.

One involves W. Sam Patten, the D.C. lobbyist who in August pleaded guilty to acting as an unregistered foreign agent and helping a Ukrainian oligarch secure a ticket to President Trump’s inauguration.

Prosecutors moved to keep a routine status update in Patten’s case entirely under seal — a notable development given that Patten’s plea agreement required him to cooperate with the D.C. U.S. attorney’s office, Mueller’s office, and other law enforcement agencies.

The secrecy could indicate either that a problem has developed with Patten’s cooperation, or that the lobbyist ended up providing more valuable information than prosecutors anticipated.

The other developments involve a secrecy-shrouded grand jury case linked to Mueller’s team. An unknown foreign corporation has resisted a subpoena in the matter and lost its efforts to quash it at the federal court and appellate court level. Over the holidays, the Supreme Court officially got involved in the matter, with Chief Justice John Roberts putting a pause on a contempt order in the case.

Mueller’s grand jury in D.C. was also extended for another six months. The panel’s 18-month term was set to expire soon, but apparently they’re not yet done with their work.

With Democrats back in control of the House, impeachment chatter is buzzing across Capitol Hill. Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) reintroduced articles of impeachment against Trump for allegedly obstructing justice by firing ex-FBI Director James Comey for his oversight of the Russia probe.

Democratic leaders are taking a more circumspect approach, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) is not ruling impeachment out. “We have to wait and see what happens with the Mueller report,” Pelosi said this week.

Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine who serves as the global security director for a U.S. company, was arrested for alleged spying in Moscow. U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman met with Whelan at the prison this week.

TIME reported that Paul Manafort tried to use an ex-Russian spy as an intermediary to pay back some $10 million he owed to Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska in the midst of the 2016 campaign. The former spy, Victor Boyarkin, confirmed that the ex-Trump campaign manager was “offering ways to pay” back the funds he owed, including giving Deripaska private briefings on the campaign.

Boyarkin told TIME he was contacted by the special counsel about his communications with Manafort, and “told them to go dig a ditch.”

And McClatchy reported that foreign intelligence agencies have data placing Michael Cohen’s cell phone near Prague in the summer of 2016. The infamous Steele dossier alleges that Cohen traveled to the eastern European country to arrange payment to hackers involved with obtaining Democratic operatives’ emails.

Cohen breezily denied the report on Twitter, joking that though he’s heard Prague is “beautiful in the summertime” he has personally “never been.”

“#Mueller knows everything,” Cohen added.

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Ah, how times change.

Back before he was President Trump’s incoming acting-chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney dismissed Trump’s plan to prevent illegal immigration by building a massive southern border wall as “absurd and almost childish.”

CNN’s K-File on Friday surfaced the 2015 clip of Mulvaney mocking the then-GOP presidential candidate’s overly simplistic views on immigration in in an interview with a South Carolina radio station.

“The fence doesn’t solve the problem. Is it necessary to have one, sure? Would it help? Sure,” Mulvaney said on WRHI. “But to just say build the darn fence and have that be the end of an immigration discussion is absurd and almost childish for someone running for president to take that simplistic of [a] view.”

Mulvaney has since become a staunch defender of the President’s signature border wall. This afternoon, with the government on the brink of shutting down over Trump’s refusal to sign a funding bill that doesn’t include $5 billion for the wall, Mulvaney huddled in Senate Minority Chuck Schumer’s office with other administration officials to try to negotiate a solution that would appease Trump.

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If President Trump wanted to blame Democrat leaders for a shutdown over his border wall funding, he probably shouldn’t have invited them into the Oval Office for an on-camera meeting last week and said he’d be “proud” to take responsibility for it.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) reminded the President of his words in a speech from the Senate floor, just 12 hours before the midnight deadline to pass a bill to fund the federal government.

“He will do his best to blame Democrats, but it’s flatly absurd,” Schumer said. “President Trump called for a shutdown no less than 25 times.”

Schumer said that Democrats worked with their Republican colleagues to agree on legislation that would fund the government through February 2019, and the process was only being derailed because of Trump’s “temper tantrum.” The President has said he won’t sign any bill unless it includes $5 billion for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.

“The President seems to relish it and seems to feel we will throw a bone to his base,” Schumer said of Trump’s stance. “The problem being, his base is less than one quarter of America. Mr. President, President Trump, you cannot erase months of video of you saying you wanted a shutdown and that you wanted the responsibility and blame for a shut down. President Trump, you own the shutdown. You said so in your own words.”

Schumer said that the decision to plow ahead with the shutdown is just the cherry on top of a particularly “chaotic” week for the Trump White House. The stock market also continued to tumble, while Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis resigned over the sudden decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria.

The New York Democrat said it was a “pointless exercise” to haul senators back to D.C. from their holiday breaks to vote on a bill that won’t pass.

“There are not the votes in the Senate for an expensive, taxpayer-funded border wall,” he said. “So, president Trump, you will not get your wall. Abandon your shutdown strategy. You are not getting the wall today, next week, or on January 3rd when Democrats take control of the House.”

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Special counsel Robert Mueller was supposed to head off for the holidays with a key part of his probe taken care of: the sentencing of ex-national security adviser Michael Flynn. But Tuesday’s sentencing hearing went off the rails, despite agreement from both Mueller and Flynn’s teams that Flynn should receive no jail time thanks to his “substantial” cooperation.

As it turns out, Flynn’s attorneys made a bad bet by implying in court filings that the FBI tried to entrap Flynn into lying to them by not explicitly saying that doing so was a crime. Mueller made it clear that a former general should be aware of this simple fact and that FBI agents gave him ample opportunity to come clean.

In court, Judge Sullivan made Flynn say straight out whether he thought he was entrapped. Flynn admitted he was not, and knew that it was a crime to lie to the FBI. But Sullivan then made it clear that he was outraged by Flynn’s conduct, from lying to federal agents on the White House grounds to acting as an unregistered lobbyist for Turkey (the judge got some key details wrong). With the prospect of prison time hanging in the air, Flynn took Sullivan up on his offer to postpone the sentencing.

Flynn’s next status conference is set for March 19. In the meantime, he offered to assist with the cases brought against his two former business partners for their work to discredit a Turkish cleric loathed by the Erdogan administration.

While some GOP senators have said it’s clear that Flynn committed a crime, his supporters — and the White House — are still insisting he was “ambushed” by the FBI.

Trump wished Flynn “good luck” ahead of his court appearance, even after he attacked fellow cooperating government witness Michael Cohen as a “rat” earlier this week.

Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani made the eyebrow-raising concession that federal prosecutors are looking into the President’s business records going back to the early 1980s.

A mysterious sealed document related to Cohen’s criminal case was “placed in vault” with the Southern District of New York in Manhattan a week after his sentencing.

The House Intelligence Committee voted to agree to Mueller’s request to turn over an official transcript of Roger Stone’s testimony. Stone countered by calling on soon-to-be-replaced committee chairman Devin Nunes (R-CA) to release his interview publicly.

And drama is brewing over oversight of the Mueller probe itself. Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker was reportedly told by Justice Department ethics officials that he should recuse himself from the Mueller probe due to his past criticism of the investigation. But Whitaker took the advice of his own advisers, who told him there was no need to do so.

Meanwhile, a new memo written by William Barr, Trump’s pick to become the permanent attorney general, is raising concerns about Barr’s ability to independently oversee the special counsel probe if confirmed. In the unsolicited memo, which Barr sent to the DOJ this summer, he writes that the theory that Trump obstructed justice is “fatally misconceived.”

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California Gov. Jerry Brown isn’t concerned that the increasingly diverse, women-dominated Democratic Party will chafe at having a white male nominee in the 2020 presidential campaign.

“What’s wrong with white men?” Brown, who has ruled out running himself, told the Associated Press.

Brown was asked for his thoughts on Joe Biden, Beto O’Rourke and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) leading the chatter about the 2020 Democratic field.

White men will “probably be running things for quite a bit of time,” Brown continued.

“Look, it’s not the skin color, it’s who’s the right person with the right set of qualities to lead the nation,” he told the AP.

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House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D) said Thursday evening that she was disturbed to learn about the abrupt resignation of Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis.

“I am shaken by the resignation of Gen. Mattis, for what it means to our country, for the message it sends to our troops and for the indication of what his view is of the commander-in-chief,” Pelosi told ABC News.

Mattis tendered his resignation in a letter laying out his disagreements with President Trump on everything from “treating our allies with respect” to growing to close to “authoritarian” countries like Russia and China. Mattis reportedly chose to resign this week over his concerns about Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria and Afghanistan without a plan in place for what will happen once they are gone.

The retiring general was making a clear statement with his carefully-worded letter, distributing copies of it throughout the Pentagon, according to a New York Times report.

“You have leaders, great leaders who have left this administration in dismay,” Pelosi told ABC of Mattis’ departure. “And the rest of them have left in disgrace. And that’s what this administration has been about.”

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