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[liberationtech] Killer fail: how Romney's broken Orca app cost him thousands of votes | The Verge

Yosem Companys companys at stanford.edu
Sun Nov 11 09:40:09 PST 2012


http://www.theverge.com/2012/11/9/3624636/killer-fail-how-romneys-broken-orca-app-cost-him-thousands-of-votes

A few days before the presidential election, Mitt Romney’s campaign
announced<http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/2012/11/romney-campaign-enlists-help-of-killer-whale-project-to-get-out-the-vote.html>
what
it hoped would be its secret weapon at the polls. Dubbed Project Orca, it
let volunteers use a web app to search for and mark off voters as they left
the polling location, then collected the data to use in projections or
check which Romney supporters might need a call. "When the exit polls come
out, we won't pay attention to that," Communications Director Gail Gitcho
told PBS. "We will have had much more scientific information just based on
the political operation we have set up."

Project Orca was designed to replace the standard phone- and paper-based
get-out-the-vote effort, creating a central system that could track voters
and allocate volunteers in real time. In a statement to the *Huffington Post
*, the campaign promised that "by knowing the current results of a state,
we can continue to adjust and micro target our get-out-the-vote efforts to
ensure a Romney victory." It was also supposed to compete with Narwhal, the
vote-tracking tool Obama would be using.

 Ali A. Akbar@*ali* <https://twitter.com/ali>

This is why the Republican Party needs to do major outreach with Silicon
Valley. ORCA is nothing short of a failure. We're being laughed at.
6 Nov 12 <https://twitter.com/ali/statuses/265955910785048576>

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By the time election night was over, though, Orca was an embarrassment.
Reporter Erin McPike tweeted that the app had crashed, rendering it
unusable. A source in Boston said the tool had been hacked, and an
anonymous aide corroborated the reports of crashes,telling *The Washington
Examiner* <http://washingtonexaminer.com/article/2512861#.UJpbhml26GO> that
"somebody said Orca is lying on the beach with a harpoon in it." According
to others, the problems didn’t stop there: even before the crash, users had
trouble just finding the site or logging in. Few blamed Romney’s loss on
Orca’s failure, but it was a final blow to his attempt to outmatch the
notoriously tech-savvy Obama campaign. So what went wrong?

"ORCA IS LYING ON THE BEACH WITH A HARPOON IN IT."

If reports written since the election are correct, just about everything.
Orca seemed to suffer from a combination of technical errors and a
confusing training program that made it easy to think something had gone
wrong even at the best of times. John Ekdahl, a Romney volunteer and author
of adetailed Orca postmortem <http://ace.mu.nu/archives/334783.php>, wrote
that training materials were vague and inaccurate, even with nightly
information sessions. Volunteers were told to look for a native mobile app
when Orca was a web app. The URL was for an HTTPS site, but the equivalent
HTTP address didn’t forward users to the right page, so anyone who mistyped
or simply started with "www" would find nothing.

[image: Orcaphone]

Offline, Ekdahl writes that problems persisted. "I was immediately turned
away [from the polls] because I didn't have my poll watcher certificate...
apparently, I was supposed to go on my own to a Victory Center to pick it
up." The Orca checklist did not mention the certificate but contained
duplicate reminders to bring a chair, suggesting that it had been
accidentally left out. Training documents on* *the* Huffington
Post*<http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/01/project-orca-mitt-romney_n_2052861.html>
show
similar problems, with duplicate checklist items and FAQ responses that
appear to answer the wrong questions. Volunteers who called the help line,
including Ekdahl, report being unable to get through.

 Erin McPike@*ErinMcPike* <https://twitter.com/ErinMcPike>

*ORCA, Romney turnout app *may* have been hacked; bottom line, GOP sources
in several locales have confirmed something is amiss.
6 Nov 12 <https://twitter.com/ErinMcPike/statuses/265944162354987008>

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"THE SYSTEM WENT DOWN FOR A HALF HOUR DURING PEAK VOTING, BUT FOR HUNDREDS
OR MORE, IT NEVER WORKED ALL DAY."

If these had been the only issues, Orca would have been poorly implemented
but fundamentally sound technology. Unfortunately for the campaign,
technical problems apparently kept more people from using it. "I worked on
the Colorado team," an anonymous campaign source told *Breitbart
News*<http://www.breitbart.com/Big-Government/2012/11/08/Orca-How-the-Romney-Campaign-Suppressed-Its-Own-Vote>,
"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."
Eventually, they were told that every PIN issued to Colorado had been
wrong; the source says a North Carolina campaign worker reported that the
same thing had happened there. "The system went down for a half hour during
peak voting, but for hundreds or more, it never worked all day... Many
members of our phone bank got up and left."

 GMF@*GMFuller1971* <https://twitter.com/GMFuller1971>

@*JohnEkdahl* <https://twitter.com/JohnEkdahl> Had the exact same
experience with ORCA. A clusterf**k of biblical proportions.
 8 Nov 12 <https://twitter.com/GMFuller1971/statuses/266676837655121920>

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By all accounts, Orca finally crashed hard the afternoon of November 6th,
though there’s little to support the allegation that it was hacked. PIN and
password problems could have been the result of either technical issues or
user error, and given how confusing the system seems to have been for
volunteers and organizers alike, it’s hard to tell which is more likely.
Romney campaign digital director Zac Moffatt admitted to
*CNET*<http://news.cnet.com/8301-13578_3-57547183-38/why-romneys-orca-killer-app-beached-on-election-day/>
that
the app hadn’t been tested adequately. "The primary issue was we
beta-tested in a different environment than [headquarters Boston Garden],"
he said. "There was so much data coming in — 1200 records or more per
minute — it shut down the system for a time. Users were frustrated by lag,
and some people dropped off and we experienced attrition as a result."

 Philip Klein@*philipaklein* <https://twitter.com/philipaklein>

RT@*BobbiJoR* <https://twitter.com/BobbiJoR>:
.@*philipaklein*<https://twitter.com/philipaklein>
 @*joshbranson* <https://twitter.com/joshbranson>
@*JohnEkdahl*<https://twitter.com/JohnEkdahl> I
was an ORCA volunteer and none of my passwords worked. Login failures on
all sites.
 8 Nov 12 <https://twitter.com/philipaklein/statuses/266693529735155712>

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Moffatt insisted that Orca did its job. "We had 91 percent of all counties
report into the system, 14.3 million voters were accounted for as having
voted, and we received 5,397 reports on voting issues, such as instances
where they ran out of ballots. The information came in, so you can't say it
didn't work. You run into issues because it's so massive in scale." Even
with these numbers, it remains a cautionary tale. Data can make or break a
campaign<http://www.theverge.com/2012/11/7/3612936/data-obama-reelection-campaign-nate-silver>,
but gathering it successfully requires a focus on actual humans and a lot
of stress testing.
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