The Unmitigated Disaster Known As Project ORCA
by JOHN EKDAHL
November 9, 2012
What is Project Orca? Well, this is what they told us:
Project ORCA is a massive undertaking - the Republican Party's newest, unprecedented and most technologically advanced plan to win the 2012 presidential election.
Pretty much everything in that sentence is false. The "massive undertaking" is true, however. It would take a lot of planning, training and coordination to be done successfully (oh, we'll get to that in a second). This wasn't really the GOP's effort, it was Team Romney's. And perhaps "unprecedented" would fit if we're discussing failure.
The entire purpose of this project was to digitize the decades-old practice of strike lists. The old way was to sit with your paper and mark off people that have voted and every hour or so, someone from the campaign would come get your list and take it back to local headquarters. Then, they'd begin contacting people that hadn't voted yet and encourage them to head to the polls. It's worked for years.
From the very start there were warning signs. After signing up, you were invited to take part in nightly conference calls. The calls were more of the slick marketing speech type than helpful training sessions. There was a lot of "rah-rahs" and lofty talk about how this would change the ballgame.
Working primarily as a web developer, I had some serious questions. Things like "Has this been stress tested?", "Is there redundancy in place?" and "What steps have been taken to combat a coordinated DDOS attack or the like?", among others. These types of questions were brushed aside (truth be told, they never took one of my questions). They assured us that the system had been relentlessly tested and would be a tremendous success.
On one of the last conference calls (I believe it was on Saturday night), they told us that our packets would be arriving shortly. Now, there seemed to be a fair amount of confusion about what they meant by "packet". Some people on Twitter were wondering if that meant a packet in the mail or a pdf or what. Finally, my packet arrived at 4PM on Monday afternoon as an emailed 60 page pdf. Nothing came in the mail. Because I was out most of the day, I only got around to seeing it at around 10PM Monday night. So, I sat down and cursed as I would have to print out 60+ pages of instructions and voter rolls on my home printer. Naturally, for reasons I can't begin to comprehend, my printer would not print in black and white with an empty magenta cartridge (No HP, I will never buy another one of your products ever again). So, at this point I became panicked. I was expected to be at the polls at 6:45AM and nothing was open. I was thankfully able to find a Kinko's open until 11PM that was able to print it out and bind it for me, but this is not something I should have had to do. They expected 75-80 year old veteran volunteers to print out 60+ pages on their home computers? The night before election day? From what I hear, other people had similar experiences. In fact, many volunteers never received their packets at all.
At 6:30AM on Tuesday, I went to the polls. I was immediately turned away because I didn't have my poll watcher certificate. Many, many people had this problem. The impression I got was this was taken care of because they had "registered me". Others were as well. But apparently, I was supposed to go on my own to a Victory Center to pick it up, but that was never communicated properly. Outside of the technical problems, this was the single biggest failure of the operation. They simply didn't inform people that this was a requirement. In fact, check out my "checklist" from my ORCA packet:
Notice anything missing? My guess is the second "Chair (if allowed)" was supposed to be "poll watcher certificate" but they put chair twice. This was an instruction packet that went out to 30,000+ people. Did no one proof-read it?
So, I headed back home to see if I could get my certificate. I called their official help line. It went unanswered. I tried their legal line. Same thing. I emailed them. No response. I continued to do this for six straight hours and never got a response. I even tried to call three local victory centers. All went straight to voicemail.
While I was home, I took to Twitter and the web to try to find some answers. From what I saw, these problems were widespread. People had been kicked from poll watching for having no certificate. Others never received their pdf packets. Some were sent the wrong packets from a different area. Some received their packet, but their usernames and passwords didn't work.
Now a note about the technology itself. For starters, this was billed as an "app" when it was actually a mobile-optimized website (or "web app"). For days I saw people on Twitter saying they couldn't find the app on the Android Market or iTunes and couldn't download it. Well, that's because it didn't exist. It was a website. This created a ton of confusion. Not to mention that they didn't even "turn it on" until 6AM in the morning, so people couldn't properly familiarize themselves with how it worked on their personal phone beforehand.
Next, and this part I find mind-boggingly absurd, the web address was located at "https://www.whateveritwas.com/orca". Notice the "s" after http. This denotes it's a secure connection, something that's used for e-commerce and web-based email. So far, so good. The problem is that they didn't auto-forward the regular "http" to "https" and as a result, many people got a blank page and thought the system was down. Setting up forwarding is the simplest thing in the world and only takes seconds, but they failed to do it. This is compounded by the fact that mobile browsers default to "http" when you just start with "www" (as 95% of the world does).
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.
The bitter irony of this entire endeavor was that a supposedly small government candidate gutted the local structure of GOTV efforts in favor of a centralized, faceless organization in a far off place (in this case, their Boston headquarters). Wrap your head around that.
I'm on Twitter at @JohnEkdahl if you have any questions.