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


It’s pardonable to be defeated, but never surprised.
— Frederick the Great

Over the past week, there has been plenty of harsh criticism of the Romney campaign’s get-out-the-vote efforts and volunteer system. While the campaign has pushed back on these claims, my experience inside a swing-state legal war room last Tuesday leads me to say that the criticisms of the campaign’s GOTV in general, and of its use of the Orca system in particular, ring true.

The main GOTV effort was supposed to operate like this: Poll watchers listen to the names of everyone coming in to vote and notate them using Orca. This means that other campaign workers charged with calling folks and encouraging them to vote don’t waste time on those who already have. It should be an easy way for campaigns to make efficient use of limited resources.

I know a few things about Election Day efforts and election law. I was an election judge for five years, and I have also been on roving legal teams. Based on that experience and on what I saw on Election Day, here is my judgment as to how and why the Romney campaign’s efforts failed, and what future efforts should do differently.

Prior to Election Day, the training for Romney poll watchers consisted of large conference calls led by staffers at the Boston headquarters, each with an enormous number of volunteers calling in. Such top-down fora are the completely wrong way to do this kind of training, because they discourage volunteers from participating and asking questions. This left questions unanswered, which caused big problems on November 6.

I witnessed particular confusion about the Orca system. It was basically a Web page that the digital team called an “app,” leading volunteers to think they needed to download something only to have their efforts hindered on Election Day morning.

In the future, it needs to be clear exactly what volunteers will be looking at on Election Day. Each poll watcher needs to go into the precinct knowing exactly what to expect.

Imagine you assigned an employee to give a presentation to a key client. Would you keep the content of the presentation, the makeup of the audience, and the technical aspects of the projector and computer he was to use a secret from him until the day before the presentation? Of course not.

Yet that is basically what the Romney campaign did to its poll watchers. It asked them to show up on Election Day to run a new system that they were not allowed access until November 6. Even if the system had worked perfectly, this would have been a serious oversight, but in many cases the Orca app just didn’t work. In our legal war room, we were flooded with pleas for help as Orca malfunctioned. Many users’ log-in PINs did not work, and the process to reset the log-ins failed. To paraphrase one president’s take on poor crisis response, one would not run a birthday party like this.