How to Prevent Another Orca Flop
Team Romney should have known much better.


For any new system that has to work perfectly on a particular day, basic testing beforehand is critical. In this case, the system should have been tested in states that had late primary elections. In addition, any system must go “live” long before the day it is needed; in this case, volunteers should have been able to test their PIN, try loging in, and browse through the system to get familiar with it. Any person who has been in business even briefly knows that launches have a “soft” and a “grand” opening. Working out these kinks early next time will avoid another meltdown on Election Day.

Further, it seems that in the months leading up to November 6, the legal-team effort was walled off from much of the poll-watching effort. These efforts should be integrated. In my past work on roving legal teams, I was given ahead of time the names and mobile numbers of the poll watchers in each of the six precincts I was covering. A volunteer should not just be sent out by himself to a polling place with no sense of support and no idea whom he could turn to for help. Understandably, without any support line, many poll watchers went home when their efforts to address the Orca meltdown were unsuccessful. There were many important precincts in swing states that ended up without a Romney poll watcher because of this.

I suspect that if they could have texted that nice campaign aide or attorney who had called them on Sunday, they would have done so rather than giving up. The failure to connect volunteers is especially exasperating when you consider that the entire point of GOTV is to identify and personally reach out to voters, on the premise that personal contact is most effective. Why would the same not hold for these wonderful, dedicated volunteers working the polls?

When packing for a trip, the most important thing to remember is to bring your photo ID; everything else can be replaced at your destination, but your ID cannot. On Election Day, a poll watcher’s ID is the certificate that enables him to get into the polling place. No certificate, no poll watching. Every state was different, but if there was a weakest link in the whole Romney GOTV system, it was the certificates.

On Election Day our war room was getting calls, to our confusion and surprise, from volunteers who either had not brought their certificate or had not been given one at all. The certificate should be the most basic point in poll-watcher training; it was clearly not a top priority for the Romney team.

One failure we saw firsthand in the war room was the system’s showing individuals as having voted absentee when in fact they had not. And I don’t mean occasional instances, but entire lists of people. Part of the poll watcher’s job is to alert the legal team if he suspects any kind of fraud, and having an absentee voter walk into the polls to vote again is a classic example of voter fraud. But if the lists the poll watchers are given aren’t accurate, we will continue to have poll watchers raising questions about legitimate voters. Fortunately, election officials, as they should have, used their authoritative registrar’s list so there were no real confrontations. But this was still an embarrassment and a waste of time. I hope this problem was isolated to the swing state I volunteered in, but it would surprise me if we were the only ones. 

I was very surprised to learn — the night before the election — that Orca would be run from headquarters in Boston. When the Orca system was down, our legal war room was flooded with pleas for help because the hotline in Boston wasn’t working. We even had calls from volunteers in other states asking us for help getting through to Boston. We were combat ineffective.

Having everything controlled by a national headquarters is just asking for trouble. Election laws are different in each state, and the training and Election Day operations should be organized at the state level. Furthermore, if one swing-state office’s power, Internet, whatever, fails, the damage won’t affect other states’ operations. Having a national number as a last resort is fine, but relying on a single central node that could fail is lethal. If there had been a complete network failure the first day that was in business, they would have fixed it and been back in business the next day. But you can’t postpone Election Day, and there are no silver medals for finishing second.

From what I have heard, the angriest critics are Romney people who have privately expressed disbelief that others on their team would let the system be designed in such an unreliable and vulnerable way. It is still unclear to me why the GOTV wasn’t done by the RNC — it’s a long-term effort and a natural role they have performed well in the past.  

The Election Day failure was as if a team had spent a year building a car to beat the land-speed record, but when the green light flashed on the Bonneville Salt Flats, the car didn’t start because there was no gas in the tank. It is up to us to make sure it does not happen again.

— Michael James Barton is a director at ARTIS Research, and has served in a variety of leadership roles on Capitol Hill, the White House, and the Pentagon.