November 08, 2012
The Unmitigated Disaster Known As Project ORCA
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
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
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
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.