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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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Rick Gates is still fully cooperating with multiple federal probes, Gates’ lawyers and special counsel Robert Mueller said in a joint status report filed Tuesday.

“Defendant Gates continues to cooperate with respect to several ongoing investigations, and accordingly the parties do not believe it is appropriate to commence the sentencing process at this time,” the parties wrote.

Whatever useful information Gates is providing will ultimately factor into the sentence that federal prosecutors recommend for the former Trump campaign adviser.

Gates’ attorneys and Mueller asked to provide the next update on their conversations to the court by March 15.

Read the filing below.

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Redistricting experts I surveyed this week were surprisingly optimistic that the Supreme Court — conservative majority aside — will finally take steps to limit extreme partisan gerrymandering in two cases before it this spring. You can read more about the reasons why here.

But of course, no one knows what will happen for sure, and other smart redistricting-watchers like Election Law Blog’s Rick Hasen fear a much darker outcome. Hasen believes the court will take the opposite tack: ruling that the judiciary has no role in policing partisan gerrymandering, opening the door to an even more reckless round of map-drawing come 2021.

Some of the experts I spoke to said that even if that happens, all won’t be lost. With Democrats newly invested in fighting the practice and in state-level politics overall, a fairer approach can be carved out through the independent or bipartisan redistricting commissions that have cropped up across the country in recent years.

States like Arizona and California led the way on this system earlier in the 2000s, and the 2018 midterms saw these independent commissions instituted via voter-approved ballot initiatives in states like Michigan.

These commissions typically strip map-drawing responsibilities from the state legislature. A commission made up of Democrats, Republicans and independents is instead tasked with coming together to agree on how legislative and congressional maps should be drawn.

Jeff Wice, a census and redistricting expert with SUNY’s Rockefeller Institute, predicts we’ll see more movement in this direction.

“If legislatures continue the same kind of bad behavior we’ve seen in 2011 and ’12, then we’re going to see either more voters taking the power away from the legislatures or the courts invalidating the plans and drawing new ones themselves,” Wice said. “If that lesson hasn’t caught on yet — in Michigan, North Carolina, Virginia, Wisconsin — then even if the U.S. Supreme Court doesn’t find the right formula to put the breaks on egregious gerrymandering, the voters might do that or the state courts might find a way.”

The National Democratic Redistricting Commission, ex-Attorney General Eric Holder’s outfit, has a similar stance.

“I don’t think it would be wise to rely on the conservative Supreme Court,” NDRC communications director Patrick Rodenbush told me. “Our approach is we’re bringing litigation at the state level and at the federal level, trying to elect people at the state level supporting reform initiatives. So it’s a holistic approach.”

Hasen has cautioned that the 5-4 conservative court could go after independent redistricting commissions, too. As he pointed out in the Atlantic this week, Chief Justice Roberts wrote a scathing dissent to Justice Ginsburg’s 2015 opinion that voters can use ballot initiatives to establish these commissions to draw congressional maps.

Per Roberts and the court’s other conservatives, the Constitution allows only the legislature to set congressional election rules; having voters take control of the process through ballot initiatives is therefore an illegal usurpation of that power.

Other experts agree that such a reversal of the 2015 Arizona ruling would be appalling, but say it’s unlikely the court would overturn that precedent so quickly.

“The court doesn’t often overrule a decision that’s only three years old,” the Campaign Legal Center’s Paul Smith said.

The Rockefeller Institute’s Wice added that any challenge to the commissions couldn’t come until one of them has drawn up a redistricting plan. Even then, he said, such a challenge could only apply to plans in the “totally independent commission states where the legislators have no final approval power,” like California. Other states with commissions, like New York, only have advisory commissions but allow the legislature to vote on a particular plan.

Tl;dr: we don’t know what will happen with the North Carolina and Maryland cases on the Supreme Court’s docket this spring. But there’s a lot more ground to fight in the redistricting wars.

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We may finally have a concrete deadline for the Mueller report. The findings the special counsel has dug up over the course of his months-long investigation will be ready to present to the Justice Department as soon as late February, according to new reporting out from NBC this week, though when or if those details will become public remains unclear.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who has overseen the Mueller case, reportedly hopes to stick around until that report is filed. That means Rosenstein may still be at the DOJ after President Trump’s pick for attorney general, Bill Barr, is installed in his new role, pending Senate confirmation next week. But Barr reportedly may want to install his own deputy in Rosenstein’s stead.

Trump may still invoke executive privilege to block parts of the report from being released to Congress and the public. Trump’s attorney, Rudy Giuliani, thinks the President’s legal team should have the opportunity to “correct” the document before it’s made available to those bodies.

With this swirling in the background, a bipartisan group of senators — including Trump pal and incoming Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-SC) — are renewing their effort to pass legislation to protect Mueller’s job.

A court filing inadvertantly revealed that Paul Manafort’s channeled Trump campaign data to Russian intelligence-linked business associate Konstantin Kilimnik. The document, which was not properly redacted, revealed that Mueller believes Manafort lied about sharing the polling data, and that Manafort “conceded” to discussing a “Ukraine peace plan” with Kilimnik on “more than one occasion.”

The New York Times initially reported that Manafort directed Kilimnik to pass this information on to Oleg Deripaska, the Russian oligarch Manafort whom he owed millions of dollars during the campaign. It turns out the intended recipients were actually two Ukrainian oligarchs who had funded some of Manafort’s work, Serhiy Lyovochkin and Rinat Akhmetov.

That revelation lent new relevance to a 2017 interview Mueller’s team held with Trump campaign pollster Tony Fabrizio, who also worked with Manafort on Ukrainian elections.

Natalia Veselnitskaya — the Russian lawyer of Trump Tower meeting fame — was charged last month with obstruction of justice in a case involving the 2012 Magnitsky Act, which imposed U.S. sanctions on Russian individuals and companies. The charges were revealed in an indictment unsealed this week.

The Supreme Court won’t halt lower courts’ orders that a mysterious foreign-owned company comply with a subpoena linked to the Mueller probe, leaving them subject to fines of up to $50,000 per day until they do so. The Washington Post has reported that the company is a “foreign financial institution,” while CNN reported that law firm Alston & Bird, which has previously represented Russian oligarchs and entities, is involved in the case.

A federal judge reamed out attorneys for the Russian troll farm firm charged by Mueller, calling their curse-word-and-movie-quote-filled filings “unprofessional” and “inappropriate.” The attorneys said that the judge was clouded by “bias.”

Michael Cohen is due to testify at a public hearing of the House Oversight Committee on Feb. 7. Stay tuned.

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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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