The Wednesday before the election, Mitt Romney sent a special message to volunteers about a special project his campaign was working on: “With state of the art technology and an extremely dedicated group of volunteers, our campaign will have an unprecedented advantage on election day.” What is it they say about something that sounds too good to be true? It probably is. That was the case with the Romney campaign’s “Project ORCA.”
The idea behind Project ORCA was simple, albeit far too complex in execution. Romney’s Boston headquarters wanted a way to track who had been to the polls in swing states, and who had not. It was the most complicated GOTV (get out the vote) effort in GOP history. Volunteers in swing states would be assigned polling places. They would be given lists of every registered voter assigned to that polling location. Those voters would be reported on to Boston via a web application when they arrived to vote, and if that failed, via phone or, as a last resort, voice. Volunteers were to log in to the application, use their assigned pin number and password, and begin reporting on voters who had come through their polling place by ID number. A source familiar with the campaign told me that Boston would initiate calls and visits to those who had not yet gotten to the polls.
The story of how monumental a failure Project ORCA was on Election Day was first reported by a volunteer, John Ekdahl, on the Ace of Spades blog. After tweeting the article, I was contacted by several other volunteers who were eager to explain in greater detail just how many things went wrong with Project Orca on Tuesday.
I spoke with one volunteer in a rural Virginia county who had a similar experience to the blogger on Ace’s site. Shoshanna McCrimmon signed up to volunteer on Romney’s website several months ago. She was contacted by Dan Centinello of the Romney campaign and underwent online and phone training that lasted for several hours in order to volunteer locally on Election Day. Because of secrecy concerns, the application itself was inaccessible until the morning of the election. From the outset there were failures of organization.
Shoshanna wasn’t given the credentials necessary to gain access to the polling place and was told to arrive when the polls opened at 7. A few days before the election, she was emailed a PDF packet, which she was meant to print out, containing the names of all of the registered voters at her polling place and instructions. Her location’s packet was only dozen or so pages; Ekdahl’s packet was over sixty. The packet was supposed to contain credentials, but they did not. Shoshana’s email to the Romney campaign the night before the election about the lack of credentials went unanswered. When Shoshanna arrived on time at 7 a.m., she learned that polls had actually opened an hour prior.
Unable to test her pin number and password until that morning, she discovered, only after after she arrived at the polling location ready to work, that her pin was invalid. She spent until 2:30 that afternoon on calls to Boston every 45 minutes trying to get a new one. She attempted to input the voter information via phone dial-pad–the first backup plan–but her invalid pin number was useless. Plan C, calling in to Boston and verbally transmitting the information, was also a wash. The same phone number for dial pad and voice reporting was given–there was no option to ask to speak to Boston directly after calling in.
After finally getting her pin number in the late afternoon, Shoshanna attempted to log into the site. She had been sent an email from the Romney campaign that morning (after polls opened) telling her that cell phones were often not allowed in polling places, after she was previously warned not to forget to bring her cell phone in other emails. Thankfully, her polling place allowed her to use her cell phone. The website, on a secure server, was inaccessible from her cell phone (Ekdahl explains why in detail). By this point hundreds of voters had passed through Shoshanna’s polling station, unreported. Nevertheless, she went home, retrieved her laptop, and thanks to the pastor at the polling place (a church) she gained access to a locked wireless network. It was only at that point that Shoshanna was able to access ORCA, with only a few hours left before polls closed.
Shoshanna’s experience was far from unique. Starting in the early afternoon, reports were coming in from across swing states that ORCA had crashed. That morning, when Shoshanna was on the phone with Boston, she was told the system was crashing, unable to withstand thousands of simultaneous log-ins. The system had never been stress tested and couldn’t handle the crush of traffic all at once. Thousands of man-hours went into designing and implementing a program that was useful on one day and one day only, and on that day, it crashed. My source familiar with the campaign described it this way, “It was a giant [mess] because a political operative sold a broken product with no support or backup plan. Just another arrogant piece of the arrogant Romney campaign.”
The operative in question, Dan Centinello, Romney’s Deputy Political Director, was Shoshanna’s only point of contact with the campaign. After a two-and-a-half-hour conference call with volunteers across the country, Shoshanna still had questions about minor details about ORCA and volunteering at her polling place. Her emails were answered within 24 hours, always by Centinello. There appears to have been no delegation on Centinello’s part, and every question sent was answered by the ORCA project manager personally. It’s likely that if this was taking place with the thousands of volunteers in Project ORCA, Centinello was spending hundreds of hours answering basic questions from volunteers that could have been addressed by lower level staffers. This time would have been better spent, I would argue, testing the capabilities of ORCA and its servers and testing the application on small groups of trusted volunteers, especially elderly ones who might have difficulty with its interface (which, on election day, they did).
One of the most basic tenets of conservatism is a loathing and mistrust of big government and bureaucracy. Project ORCA was the embodiment of big government, top-down management. Information was sent by volunteers in swing states across the country to Boston, and those in Boston were then tasked with assigning other volunteers in those same swing states to contact those who had not yet been to the polls. Boston was, at best, a detour and an unnecessary middleman in the GOTV efforts, and when that link in the chain broke, Romney’s GOTV effort crumbled on the most crucial day of his campaign. One of the most successful components of Karl Rove’s GOTV efforts with George W. Bush’s campaigns was his small-government ideological approach. Each volunteer was tasked with personally getting a handful of voters from their area to the polls, voters that they were already familiar with from their church, their children’s schools and their community. Instead of this strategy, Boston was the hub; information was sent there and GOTV assignments were delegated from thousands of miles away by Romney staffers largely unfamiliar with individuals and communities. At Ace of Spades, Ekdahl described the organizational approach of Project ORCA: “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).”
Was ORCA’s failure the reason why Romney lost Virginia by almost 116,000 votes, Ohio by 103,000, Iowa by 88,000 or why Florida is still, days later, too close to call? It’s impossible to know what a Romney campaign with working GOTV technology would have been able to accomplish. Ekdahl explained that with the failure of Project ORCA’s organization and its later meltdown on Election Day “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.” The possibility that all of the efforts of Romney’s campaign, all of the enthusiasm, went unharnessed and dormant on Election Day when they could’ve at least led to a closer election result, if not a victory, is becoming beyond frustrating for thousands of his staffers, for the millions of Americans who gave their time and money to elect Mitt Romney president as they come to learn just what a disaster ORCA seems to have been.