2008, the Obama campaign unveiled a revolutionary new program called Houdini
that would magically make the names of those who had already voted disappear from the Get Out The
Vote lists. The program -- which was only reserved for "tier 1 precincts"
that the Obama campaign deemed most crucial -- was surprisingly low-tech. There
would be a poll watcher and poll reporter assigned to each targeted precinct.
The poll watcher would take a list of targeted voters with pulltabs next to
each voter's name. When that voter had cast a ballot, the pulltab, which
contained a unique ID number labeling the voter, would be removed from the list
and handed to the poll reporter. At a specified times, the poll reporter would
go outside and, on a cellphone, dial into an IVR system run by the Obama
campaign. (IVR is the technical name for the automated phone system that asks
you "to press one for English.) The reporter would then enter in each ID code on the smartphone and the data would be digitally linked to the Obama campaign's
voter database. Once the voter ID was entered, that voter's name would be
removed from the lists and the campaign had one less person to doorknock or call.
was supposed to work seamlessly and it was tested by organizers across the
country in advance on several dry runs. There was even a full-scale statewide
practice when it was used for the Wisconsin Democratic primary on September 9,
2008. But that proved all for
Election Day, the call volume was even more than anticipated and took out the
entire phone system for the Obama campaign. It didn't just effect the reporting
of vote totals but effected anything that involve a central campaign phone line. If
you were calling to ask where your polling place was or calling the voter
protection hotline to report an irregularity, odds were that you weren't
getting through. The result was a mess. As Obama's 2008 campaign manager David Plouffe put it
when asked publicly about this at the Harvard Institute of Politics after the
election, "basically the technology kinda crashed." The critical difference between that failure and the one the Romney team experienced last Tuesday was
that the Obama campaign was prepared for the worst.
Ben Smith, then at Politico, reported that
day, runners were sent from polling places back to canvass locations and
field offices. Everything was shifted to paper and handled through workarounds. As Plouffe said at Harvard, "You have to
have a backup plan."
But the Romney campaign did not have a backup plan for what to do if ORCA went down. The
software was unveiled to volunteers at 6 a.m. on Election Day and turned out to be full of bugs -- a sign of inadequate advance testing. And,
unlike Houdini, which was viewed as a bit of a luxury by the Obama campaign in
had been billed to major Republican donors as the secret weapon that would
enable Romney to best the vaunted Obama ground game. Even its name was a taunt: Obama's top-secret project to target voters was called Narwhal, and as Romney's
communications director, Gail Gitcho, told NPR, "The Orca is the only known
predator to that."