Court decision encourages Monroe prisoners eager for right to vote

MONROE — Bill Pawlyk considered himself a conservative before he went to prison.

His political leanings changed after he lost the ability to vote and began serving a life sentence at the Monroe Correctional Complex.

“I shifted more toward the center,” said Pawlyk, 68.

“You’re a McCain type of fellow,” added Kimonti Carter, 30, a fellow convict serving life at the Monroe Correctional Complex.

The men, both found guilty of first-degree murder, are among a group of Washington state prisoners excited by a controversial court decision that could return their right to vote.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in a 2-1 decision filed last week that inmates have the right to cast ballots. The decision could overturn a law that has deprived prisoners of the vote since Washington’s days as a territory.

State Attorney General Rob McKenna and Secretary of State Sam Reed plan to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. McKenna could argue the case himself this fall.

He has a chance of winning the appeal, said Trent England, a policy director at Evergreen Freedom Foundation, a conservative think tank in Olympia.

England argued that denying prisoners the right to vote is sound public policy.

“If you reject civil society, we have the right to reject you, at least for a certain period of time,” England said.

Some convicts disagree.

Four men in Monroe, all sentenced to life in prison, argue that giving inmates the vote will connect them to society and aid their rehabilitation.

“You now feel like you’re a part of something,” said Daniel Haldane, 47, a third-strike offender most recently found guilty of first-degree assault.

Last year, legislators passed a law that allows convicted felons to reregister to vote once they’re no longer on parole or probation. Previously, felons who were no longer in Washington state custody but owed court-ordered fines and restitution were not allowed to vote.

The appeals court decision could expand voting rights further, giving incarcerated felons the right to vote.

The court reached its conclusion on the basis of racial discrimination. The justices wrote that depriving inmates the vote disenfranchises minority groups, which are sent to prison in larger numbers than the rest of the population.

Pawlyk, who is white, agreed with that.

“You’re not just taking the vote away from that man, as such,” he said. “You’re taking that vote away from that community, and that whole community gets impacted.”

Some outside the prison are less convinced. In her dissent, 9th Circuit Judge Margaret McKeown argued that her fellow justices were overreaching.

“The majority has charted territory that none of our sister circuits has dared to explore,” she wrote.

More trailblazing will occur if the majority decision holds. Logistically, it’s not clear how to let prisoners vote.

For instance, prisoner mail is opened and inspected. How should a secret ballot in a mail-in election be treated?

Also, as inmates, prisoners have a Monroe address. Would that make convicts one of the city’s largest voting blocs? Or could they vote in the cities where they lived before prison?

“The high schools, the junior high schools that failed me as a child, I should be able to change those for the kids who are growing up in those communities now,” Carter said, arguing for the latter.

McKenna is asking the 9th Circuit Court to put a hold on its ruling while the state seeks a review by the U.S. Supreme Court. So county auditors don’t need to start registering inmates — at least not until the Supreme Court weighs in.

As motions and appeals work through the system, inmates are left to consider the power of their vote.

The four lifers at Monroe said they care about issues beyond their old neighborhoods. Some worry about the war in Iraq.

The men all support prison reform. They want more educational opportunities, so other inmates can gain the skills needed for the return to life on the outside.

“We want to be a part of the system, so we can change it or improve it or keep it in perpetuity,” said Antonio Wheat, 65. “We are not out to disrupt and destroy.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Andy Rathbun: 425-339-3455, arathbun@heraldnet.com

What’s next

A federal appeals court ruled last week that felons in the state penal system should get the vote, overturning a past decision and potentially changing state law.

Attorney General Rob McKenna and Secretary of State Sam Reed will appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. McKenna could argue the case himself this fall.

Additionally, McKenna is expected to ask the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to put a hold on its ruling while the state seeks a review by the U.S. Supreme Court.

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