John Laird: Nov. 6 offers striking changes, even by our standards

By John Laird, Columbian Editorial Page Editor

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Only once in this column will you find the word "progressive." I make this promise out of concern for the safety of household pets. Every time I use that word in a column, half of the readers roll up their newspapers and start swatting violently at the nearest living thing. Fido flees panic-stricken and, sadly, the rest of the column goes unread.

Suffice it to say, though, that Washington is, well, a precocious state, especially when compared with others. And if you don't believe it, consider the Nov. 6 ballot, most notably the statewide ballot measures. They are listed using fairly innocuous numbers, but they represent what Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat calls "once-in-generations" change.

If Initiative 502 passes (last week's KCTS 9 Washington poll says it probably will) and marijuana use is legalized, Washington would be "taking a substance that's been illegal for the better part of a century and turning it into a commercial product, from seed to store," Westneat concludes, complete with "state-licensed pot farms and retail outlets." Oh, my!

Likewise, if Referendum 74 passes (that same poll says it probably will) and gay marriage legislation is affirmed, Washington will become the first state to say "Yes," after 32 states said "No." As Westneat wrote, "not since the end of laws barring interracial marriage -- more than a century ago in this state, about 50 years ago in the South -- have we considered such a change." Egad!

So trust me, this election ain't exactly Pollard vs. Leavitt.

Both conservatives and liberals have this annoying habit of labeling elections as "transformational" or "the most important in our nation's history." But this year in Washington, it is no hyperbole to describe our Nov. 6 election as cutting-edge, or to portray the collective attitude of state residents as avant-garde.

Others stuck in the past

Many people think this year's societal shift is a good thing. Others deplore the changes as a descent into depravity and ruin, from which there is no absolution. I guess here in the Apple State, some of us like to think of what's happening as ripening.

At the other end of the spectrum, we find Michigan, which, unlike 32 other states, conducts fixed-time-and-place elections, with absentee ballots granted only to those who fall into one of six strict categories. An editorial in the Holland (Mich.) Sentinel argues that it is time for Michigan to "make the system work better for voters rather than forcing voters to adapt to arbitrary government procedures."

This is yet another reminder that all-mail voting in Washington and Oregon (the only two states that have it) is more than just cutting-edge; it's a manifestation of the customer-service approach. Here, we vote at our own convenience. In Michigan, they vote at the government's convenience. I wonder if this makes any sense to the dwindling few folks in Washington and Oregon -- most of them less-government advocates, ironically -- who still oppose all-mail voting. Probably not.

The Sentinel argues there is "no reason we vote in 2012 in the same limited time and places we did in 1912." Yet they do, demonstrating a blind obedience that is unbecoming to Wolverines and Spartans alike.

Nebraska is phasing in a hybrid system somewhere between Washington's and Michigan's. According to the Grand Island (Neb.) Independent, that state "allows a county with fewer than 10,000 residents to apply to the secretary of state to conduct all elections by mail in precincts in the county." So far, 58 precincts out of about 1,400 in Nebraska have converted to all-mail voting systems with no polling places or date-time restrictions. Sounds a little weird to me, especially for Nebraska, but it's all left to each precinct's discretion, so that's a good thing.

Meanwhile, it's a safe bet that neither Michigan nor Nebraska will decriminalize marijuana or legalize gay marriage anytime soon. No problem with that, as far as I'm concerned. Hey, it's their future. Or, more precisely, it's their past.