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So much depends on a capital 'N'

Take heart, Michigan: things are looking up. You're adding jobs. Your state revenue is growing.
A letterpress "N," in this case 10-point Kabel.
A letterpress "N," in this case 10-point Kabel.

Take heart, Michigan: things are looking up. You're adding jobs. Your state revenue is growing. The worst might be behind you -- unless you're living in a place like Muskegon Heights, where the worst is still unfolding. This week the newly appointed emergency manager of the Muskegon Heights schools announced that dramatic changes were on the way. "[W]e're off to the healing process," he said on Monday. On Tuesday, he sent layoff notices to every state employee in the district, then announced that the school board was now merely advisory.

More than 200,000 Michiganders have signed a petition to overturn the emergency manager law that gives unilateral authority for towns and school districts to single unelected overseers. The Board of State Canvassers threw those petitions out last month on a party-line vote, with Republicans saying they couldn't be sure the type on one part of the petition was big enough.

Days later, says Herbert Sanders, attorney for the petition side, someone inside the Secretary of State's office told him that the board's secretary had sought advice from a Michigan State University graphics professor about whether the type was big enough. That professor has since signed an affidavit (included in this pdf) saying he told the state the font looked like the required 14 points:

Visually, the font size on the petition was the same font size that I had utilized which was 14 point bold Calibri.

That information never made it into the secretary's report to the Board of State Canvassers. Preparing an appeal that was heard today, attorney Sanders attempted to depose the professor this week. The Secretary of State's office asked the court to quash the testimony. The state said it was too late to hear from the professor whose opinion they'd sought, and the court agreed.

How did this wreck happen? If you read the email exchange (same pdf above) between the state official and the professor, it almost sounds like the state official was a little frustrated with the technicalities of fonts.

"Tomorrow morning I will have to explain why 14 point Calibri is not really 14 point size," the official wrote on the eve of the Board of State Canvassers vote. He continued, "Again, why would Calibri 14 be put into software as 14 point when clearly it is not?"

Yesterday I talked to that professor, Chris Corneal, and he told me the way the state is trying to measure the type is wrong.

The specs are based on the old letterpress system, where each letter existed on a single block of wood or metal -- great big capital "N's" and low-hanging "g's" lived on blocks of the same size, according to their fonts. To say something is 14-point type, as the law requires, would have meant measuring the entire block, not just the inkform that appears on the page. But most printing is done digitally now, so you have to consider the range of letters in a sample AND the spacing around the letters. You can't consider just the ink of a single capital "N" as the petition challengers did and pronounce it standard or not. "The standard is not a standard," Professor Corneal said. "We almost need to start over with the requirements in the law."

Beyond comparing a sample to the known font, he said, the only way to know for sure is to ask the printer who created the documents. Because of the change in technology, if the court won't accept as definitive the sworn testimony of the print shop hired by the petitioners, as the state didn't, then the petition side may find proving its case almost impossible -- regardless of the politics of Michigan's elected judges.

After the hearing today, activist and publisher Bruce Fealk of the Rochester Citizen asked Herbert Sanders whether Michigan citizens should peaceably take to the streets if the courts reject their petitions against the emergency manager law. Sanders told him:

"There comes a time when you become frustrated with the denial of your rights, that the extraordinary measures that are being taken to deny your rights require an extraordinary response. So I think it's up to the people what that response will be."

The court is expected to rule sometime in the next seven days.