The infamous butterfly ballot, a staggered two-page layout with candidate names on alternating sides of a central punch-button column, had caused much confusion among Florida voters. Palm Beach County’s election supervisor had made the fateful mistake of enlarging the type on the ballot to accommodate Sunbelt voters’ aging eyes — unwittingly throwing off the alignment in the process. “It was pretty easy to vote for Pat Buchanan instead of Al Gore,” says Chisnell, who observed the saga unfolding on TV. “All the crazy recounts were happening not because of a security problem but because of a basic design problem. People had voted for candidates they didn’t intend to because of the design of the ballots.
Chisnell watched, fascinated by on-the-street interviews with grannies complaining that they felt tricked because the ballot was difficult to use. (She has since learned that about 20 percent of Florida voters were exposed to hard-to-read ballots.) This got her thinking: Aren’t there any professional designers involved in creating ballots? She asked around and none of her peers were. She began to search the Internet for ways she could help.
After checking out various government websites, she came across a five-person Ballot Simplification Committee in San Francisco — “It’s like Iron Chef for editors,” says Chisnell — that was responsible for writing the plain-language descriptions of ballot measures. It took a few years, but she wangled her way onto the committee, obtaining an appointment by the mayor. Chisnell, then 43, was the youngest person in the group by far. “There aren’t that many people who can spend 10 weeks a year working for free on this,” says Chisnell, who served from 2005 to 2009 on the pro bono committee.”