ORCA vs. Narwhal offers lessons in campaign technology

One of ORCA's functions was supposed to call citizens reminding them to vote on election day.  Wikimedia
One of ORCA's functions was supposed to call citizens reminding them to vote on election day. Wikimedia

This campaign season we saw the rise of memes and GIFs as political communicators. While it is unclear that they had any effect on the outcome of the campaign, their widespread existence can likely be attributed (beyond their humor) to increased technology access. One place that this access is seen to be increasing is in the role of the mobile device.

In an attempt to harness the power of smartphones for his campaign, presidential candidate Mitt Romney developed a program code-named ORCA. ORCA was to be “a web app to search for and mark off voters as they left the polling location,” reported Adi Robertson in The Verge. Created and managed by Romney’s campaign, the program “was supposed to be incredibly efficient and allow the campaign to streamline, from its War Room at the Garden in Boston, the efforts to maximize turnout of Romney backers,” according to POLITICO sources.

Furthermore Republican volunteers, such as John Ekdahl according to his posting on Ace of Spades HQ, were promised that ”Project ORCA is a massive undertaking — the Republican Party’s newest, unprecedented and most technologically advanced plan to win the 2012 presidential election.” It is not unreasonable then that many Republicans had high hopes before the campaign that it would compete with Obama’s Narwhal program come election day.

The results on election day, however, were far from satisfactory. Amidst claims that the system had crashed and maybe even been hacked, a number of logistic problems became apparent in what some people now call “Romney’s fail whale.” The Verge summarized the problem: ”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.” Among the things that went wrong with the ORCA program were the FAQ, site navigation and setup instructions, system failure and their phone in help line.

Missing and incorrect information in FAQs/guides provided for the volunteers in the ORCA program should of been a warning sign from the beginning for things to come. The most obvious error was that bringing a chair was listed twice on participants’ to-do lists, while other instructions were left off. Important instructions such as the need to get a pass in order to remain at the polls resulted in many volunteers being kicked out.

Not to mention the fact that the system required volunteers to print out 60+ page PDFs (if they received them at all) the night before the election. One volunteer described the situation as unreasonable saying, “They expected 75-80 year old veteran volunteers to print out 60+ pages on their home computers?”

The next problem that many volunteers experienced was with the navigation instructions to get to the “web app” portion of ORCA. Initially, many people thought ORCA would use a traditional Apple or Android app. However, users were frustrated when they couldn’t locate the app in those stores because the app was actually a “web app,” an arm of an actual website.

In his review of what went wrong with ORCA, John Ekdahl looked at the second problem, “Setting up forwarding [from http to https] is the simplest thing in the world and only takes seconds, but they failed to do it.” Because the web address for ORCA didn’t forward, those who navigated to the site normally (starting with http or www) couldn’t view the secure (https) page on which it was hosted. This resulted in more confusion over whether or not ORCA was even up and running throughout the day.

Once a volunteer had gotten over the first two hurdles, he or she faced one more problem: the log in. Throughout the course of the day, people continued to report that they couldn’t get into the web app to provide updated information to the campaign headquarters. It turns out that a large portion of those who could not log in were in Colorado and North Carolina, where some reports say every PIN issued was wrong. In addition, the reset PIN function was not operational.

If campaign volunteers had not given up by this time, they were next faced with the problem of getting help. This was a problem because the helpline only worked intermittently. When the whole ORCA system went down for half an hour during peak voting, many people just got up and left the phone banks. The Washington Examiner received a report that “somebody said ORCA is lying on the beach with a harpoon in it.”

A key factor in ORCA’s death was an insufficient beta testing process that may never have been “stress tested” from the Boston campaign center, before it was turned on at 6 a.m. on election day. This was not helped by campaign aides who continued to insist that ORCA was not “problem-plagued.”

It is not surprising then, that there were poor results. John Ekdahl said, “I never got a call to go out and vote. So, who the hell knows if that end of it was working either.” He went on to summarize the results of the 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.”

While acknowledging that there were problems, Romney campaign digital director Zac Moffatt pointed out that it was not as bad as some made it seem. Moffatt told Ars’s Sean Gallagher that “91 percent of counties in the targeted states came in, and that we had 14.5 million people who were marked as having voted. And there were 4,397 reports of incidents that we were able to pass to our legal department.” In addition Moffatt pointed out that, “It’s really hard to go up against someone who has four years of lead time.”

On the other side of the aisle, Obama’s Narwal program seems to have met with better success. The program has been working “below the surface, invisible to the outside world” claims Sasha Issenberg, who writes for Slate. The goal of the Narwal program is to develop long term unified voter profiles that fuse “the online activist, the offline voter, the donor [and] the volunteer.” The resulting data efficiency allowed Obama’s canvassers to no longer knock on the doors of those who have already volunteered and switched over email lists from donations to volunteers when the maximum amount was reached.

On their blog, Media Research TV says that Michael Slaby, Obama’s integration and innovation officer, believes his program promotes “treating people like people.” And that any magic the Obama campaign has comes through its grassroots approach both in person and through technology. This grassroots approach has taken the last four years to build.

Future candidates can learn some important lessons from both of these technological campaigns. First, that developing a good system that both gathers and allows access to data takes time and careful planning. Second, that the human element must not be ignored. If you want a program to be used by the masses, it needs to be understood by the masses. Third, an election campaign contains many elements, and while no single element will make or break it, every element is important.

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