ORCA – A Failure Of Epic Proportions

by Sal on November 9, 2012

in Election 2012,Politics,Technology

While everyone in the Conservative Movement and Republican party are looking introspectively at Tuesday’s loss, one new piece of information has surfaced that may be more heartbreaking than anything else – Tuesday’s election just may have been lost by bad software.  As a Software Engineer myself, I can attest to the importance of quality control, load testing, and redundancy in software.  When developing and deploying a mission-critical piece of software, there are steps that can and must be taken to ensure that the software will run as expected when it needs to.  From the evidence that is emerging, it seems as if the Romney Campaign’s Project ORCA didn’t do any of that.

ORCA is basically a massive Get Out The Vote application developed by and for the Romney team to track lists of people who voted and who still needed to vote, so volunteers could target people effectively.  This was meant as a high-tech replacement for the old-school cross-off lists that have been used in previous elections.  Stories coming out of the Romney Campaign over the past 24 hours show a piece of software that utterly collapsed on Election Day, the very day it was needed.  One campaign worker who reported on Ace of Spades recounted how he was at a loss at how to do his GOTV job on Election Day:

By 2PM, I had completely given up. I finally got ahold of someone at around 1PM and I never heard back. From what I understand, the entire system crashed at around 4PM. I’m not sure if that’s true, but it wouldn’t surprise me. I decided to wait for my wife to get home from work to vote, which meant going very late (around 6:15PM). Here’s the kicker, I never got a call to go out and vote. So, who the hell knows if that end of it was working either.

So, 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.

Joel Pollak recounts other campaign workers in Colorado who experienced similar frustrations:

I worked on the Colorado team, and we were called by hundreds (or more) volunteers who couldn’t use the app or the backup phone system. The usernames and passwords were wrong, but the reset password tool didn’t work, and we couldn’t change phone PINs. We were told the problems were limited and asked to project confidence, have people use pencil and paper, and try to submit again later.

Then at 6PM they admitted they had issued the wrong PINs to every volunteer in Colorado, and reissued new PINs (which also didn’t work). Meanwhile, counties where we had hundreds of volunteers, such as Denver Colorado, showed zero volunteers in the system all day, but we weren’t allowed to add them. In one area, the head of the Republican Party plus 10 volunteers were all locked out. The system went down for a half hour during peak voting, but for hundreds or more, it never worked all day. Many of the poll watchers I spoke with were very discouraged. Many members of our phone bank got up and left.

Reading these accounts, I can find numerous things wrong with both the architecture of the application and it’s usability.  I won’t go into the technical details of that here (unless anyone is interested), but as someone who works with software and has managed other software engineers, most of the mistakes that have been revealed with how this application was constructed were obvious and easily preventable.  Besides the obvious bugs and stability issues, it also did not take advantage of modern technologies of social networks and mobile in an effective way.  Whoever designed this application and approved it really needs to look into another line of work, because it is just abysmal how bad it was.

The real shame here is wondering how many votes this cost Romney.  Bush won big in 2004 partly because of a superior GOTV effort.  Romney lost by 100,000 (out of 5M+ cast) in Ohio, 100,000 (out of 2.5M cast in VA), 50,000 (out of 8M cast) in Florida, and 85,000 (out of 2M cast) in Colorado.  With ORCA, it sounds like the GOP’s GOTV effort was nonexistent in many places on election day.  If a real GOTV effort had been conducted, it is conceivable that these gaps could have been overcome.  While the longer-term systemic problems in the GOP in regards to culture and outreach remain and need to be addressed, there is no excuse for this kind of incompetence.  The GOP needs to get its act together in the next election, and ensure that it has a modern, all-encompassing GOTV system that is reliable, scalable, and secure.  If they can’t even get that right, any other gains we make won’t matter.

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Maybe It Is Just a Flesh Wound, But It Must Be Treated | Axis of Right
November 14, 2012 at 10:06 am

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