Romney’s polling day technology meltdown: Orca

The usual post-electoral defeat search for explanations and people to blame has an added edge for the Republicans after Mitt Romney’s defeat earlier this month. Not only did Romney lose, he lost in all the states that were picked as being in serious contention, the Republicans actually lost ground in the Senate (when they had hopes of making gains) and the initial voting analysis shows the Republicans with a big problem: the parts of the electorate that are growing are the parts which vote against them the most heavily.

Add to all that the number of Republicans who seemed to genuinely believe the rhetoric about how the polls were skewed in Obama’s favour, and so were genuinely shocked when the defeats started rolling in, and it’s no surprise just about anyone and anything save for tricycles have so far been lined up for blame by someone.

One justifiable target is the computerised polling day system which the Republicans used, or rather tried to use as in fact it was a horrible failure. The Obama campaign had a similar problem in 2008 with Project Houdini, one of the mistakes its campaign made first time round. (A small digression: Karin Robinson wrote up a good critique at the time of my views on what Obama got wrong in 2008 and my list of positive things to learn from 2008 Obama campaign still seems a pretty good list. Liz Williams blogged it here.)

ArsTechnica reports of Orca:

It was supposed to be a “killer app,” but a system deployed to volunteers by Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign may have done more harm to Romney’s chances on Election Day – largely because of a failure to follow basic best practices for IT projects…

The goal was to put a mobile application in the hands of 37,000 volunteers in swing states, who would station themselves at the polls and track the arrival of known Romney supporters. The information would be monitored by more than 800 volunteers back at Romney’s Boston Garden campaign headquarters via a Web-based management console, and it would be used to push out more calls throughout the day to pro-Romney voters who hadn’t yet shown up at the polls. A backup voice response system would allow local poll volunteers to call in information from the field if they couldn’t access the Web.

But Orca turned out to be toothless, thanks to a series of deployment blunders and network and system failures. While the system was stress-tested using automated testing tools, users received little or no advance training on the system. Crucially, there was no dry run to test how Orca would perform over the public Internet…

In a final training call on November 3, field volunteers were told to expect “packets” shortly containing the information they needed to use Orca. Those packets, which showed up in some volunteers’ e-mail inboxes as late as November 5, turned out to be PDF files—huge PDF files which contained instructions on how to use the app and voter rolls for the voting precincts each volunteer would be working. After discovering the PDFs in his e-mail inbox at 10:00 PM on Election Eve, Ekdahl said that “I sat down and cursed, as I would have to print 60+ pages of instructions and voter rolls on my home printer. They expected 75 to 80-year old veteran volunteers to print out 60+ pages on their home computers? The night before election day?”…

Some field volunteers couldn’t even report to their posts, because the campaign hadn’t told them they first needed to pick up poll watcher credentials from one of Romney’s local “victory centers.” Others couldn’t connect to the Orca site because they entered the URL for the site without the https:// prefix; instead of being redirected to the secure site, they were confronted with a blank page, Ekdahl said.

And for many of those who managed to get to their polling places and who called up the website on their phones, there was another, insurmountable hurdle—their passwords didn’t work and attempts to reset passwords through the site also failed…

The full piece on Orca is well worth a read, as is the account of one would-be user of the system:

The end result was that 30,000+ of the most active and fired-up volunteers were wandering around confused and frustrated when they could have been doing anything else to help. Like driving people to the polls, phone-banking, walking door-to-door, etc. We lost by fairly small margins in Florida, Virginia, Ohio and Colorado. If this had worked could it have closed the gap? I sure hope not for my sanity’s sake.

A reassuring subtext for users of the Liberal Democrat Connect system is that the sorts of mistakes the Romney campaign made haven’t been made with Connect. It’s been rolled out well ahead of the biggest election day in the 4-5 year cycle, getting used first in council by-elections and then in an important round of local elections – important but not a national election polling day with its much higher numbers of voters. Similarly, on issues such as training the Connect approach has been very different, with extensive training available, including online videos.

That said, the most important lesson is always worth remembering – effective IT systems used by thousands of volunteers require much more to be got right than simply the lines of code tested in the office.

* Mark Pack has written 101 Ways To Win An Election and produces a monthly newsletter about the Liberal Democrats.

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6 Comments

  • David Evans 12th Nov '12 - 1:08pm

    Good to see that the British Government doesn’t have a monopoly on IT disasters. Also that Connect is proving very different from ORCA. However a few pointers are worth noting so that we continue to improve Connect:
    1) Those keenest and with the most and best features to use to use are the technogeeks – there are lots of those in online forums, but they are a minority of the activist base;
    2) the supporters who use it on the ground still despair at its user unfriendly printed canvass cards, poor sort order etc
    3) and most importantly, it didn’t stop us losing over 1,000 councillors in the last two years. Good technology helps but good politics is essential.

  • (3) is very important. There are a lot of people saying about how Connect (VAN) “helped Obama win” – which it did. However the Democrats had basically the same system in 2010 when they had the biggest beating in mid-term elections in modern history. Tech helps at the margins – and margins can be crucial in a close fight (so it could well have made the difference in Ohio, Virginia and Florida). But get the core message and politics wrong and it won’t do much to save you.

    (1) Is a valid – but that shows the need to train the activist base in using the best and most effective campaign techniques (and is true in a lot of other areas besides Connect). With an integrated system it is easier to provide support and advice externally as well as leveraging in some useful information for targeting which can help. But the common denominator should be aiming to level up not level down.

  • Paul Holmes 12th Nov '12 - 2:52pm

    For all the excitement about ORCA it is just a version of what we have done from long before cheap computers were available ie collecting tellers numbers at the polling station, crossing them off the Shuttleworth (or Cowley Pad), and going out to knock up a hopefully ever dwindling list of supporters who have not voted yet. Yes the use of mobile phone technology can speed this process up -if all your ‘tellers’ own and are clued up on using modern technology.

    As the ORCA experience seems to indicate, over enthusiastic pursuit of easy ‘teccy’ solutions can be a disaster if you forget that every end user has to be as clued up as the professionals and enthusiasts back at the campaign office. Read that warning even more when you remember that US election campaigns spend an absolute fortune and rely on very large numbers of paid staff to manage the volunteers -as opposed to UK elections where there are comparatively very few paid professional staff.

  • Peter Chivall 14th Nov '12 - 1:27pm

    2 points: 1) Don’t forget that half the Party (generally the poorer half) still use EARS in its revamped Online version. EARS has the advantage that local Parties ‘own’ the data which is resident on their own machines but is updated frequently by ‘handshake with the national servers as long as the local team is connected to the web. If the Web goes down, you can still get your Shuttleworths out. EARS is activist led, and activist owned and helped us, as a small local Party, to win 2 crucial seats from the Tories in foul weather last May.
    2) The answer to Jean Evans is one word: Gerrymander. The boundaries of Congressional seats are drawn by the States on a political basis to maximise the effect of the votes cast for the favoured Party. Florida is a case in point: Democrat votes are piled up in the urban centres, winning few seats but by large majorities of 66/34 etc, while the slightly fewer Republican votes won twice as many rural seats by majorities of 52/48 etc Thus Florida overall went for Obama and elected a Democrat senator, but Republicans won 2/3 of the House seats.

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