Friday, August 10, 2012

The Dumbest Legal/Political Issue Yet – Did Michigan’s Petitions to Put an Issue on the Ballot Use 14 pt. Type?

No Greater Waste of a Court’s Time

The intentions were good.  In Michigan apparently the law requires that any petition to place an item on the ballot must be printed in 14 pt type in order to make certain people can see and understand what they are signing.  But like every other issue in American politics, any requirement like this just opens the door for litigation, where people try to defeat in the courts what they cannot defeat at the ballot box.

The issue in question in Michigan is whether or not petitions for voter approval of a controversial law that allows the state to take over financially failing local governmental units met the 14 pt requirement.  Those supporting a vote got plenty of signatures, far more than what was required.

Unions launched a drive last year to put a proposal to repeal Public Act 4 on this November's ballot. The drive, run by the union-backed Stand Up for Democracy, collected more than 203,000 signatures, well more than the 161,305 required. The business-backed Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility challenged the petition, arguing that Stand Up for Democracy failed to comply with state laws that detail how petitions for ballot questions must be designed, including a requirement that the heading, or summary description, "shall be…in 14 point boldfaced type."

But opponents raised the 14 pt type requirement issue and the case went to the Michigan Supreme Court.

The letters in the Calibri font used by Stand Up For Democracy, when measured using an "E scale" ruler used by type designers, were less than 14/72 of an inch tall, which is the definition of 14-point type, Michigan's Court of Appeals had ruled. But the lower court said the question should remain on the ballot because the petition was in "substantial compliance" with the law, and Michigan courts previously ruled that was good enough.

Lucas de Groot, a type designer in Berlin who created Calibri, said by email that "the typical height of capital letters is around 70% of the type size, so all typefaces are 'smaller' than 14 pt when set at 14 pt. However, Calibri has a high readability per square inch compared to many other typefaces, and from a typographers point of view 14 point is huge for reading text. It is big enough for people with bad vision or for elderly without reading glasses."

Before the Supreme Court, John Pirich, a lawyer for Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility, argued the Calibri letters used in the petition, even if identified as "14-point" on a computer, were smaller than required by a law that left no room for ambiguity.

Lost in all of this was the issue itself,

The ballot question is a union-backed initiative seeking to repeal Michigan's Public Act 4, commonly known as the emergency-manager law. The statute, passed in 2011 by a newly installed Republican-led legislature and signed by new GOP Gov. Rick Snyder, gives the governor the power to effectively take over the management of cities and school districts deemed to be on the edge of bankruptcy.

And the opinion of this Forum is that the law is probably ok.  If public employee unions and local officials don’t want a state takeover, then don’t operate the local governmental unit in a way that bankrupts it.  Really, it’s that simple and you don’t need 14 pt type to read the writing on the wall.

Oh yes, the Supreme Court did rule in favor of common sense, that the petitions were legible and readable and the issue could go to the voters for a vote.  All in all a sensible approach that should not have required the state Supreme Court’s time.

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