Software Rollout From Hell

I do politics – mostly amateur punditry, but some campaign and party volunteering as well – for the fun of it.  And, nights like last Tuesday notwithstanding, it is largely fun.  And necessary; someone’s got to beat back the orcs.

But if there’s one group in politics that largely annoys the piss outta me, it’s the mid-level professional operatives.  Usually young, usually poli-sci majors, usually doing a lot of thankless scutwork on campaigns, they remind me of radio people in many ways, most of them bad; like young radio and media people, they spend their formative years in a social vacuum, associating largely with people like them,.putting in grueling hours at jobs that send them all over the place frequently on no notice, never really having time or need to develop into well-rounded people with social skills or perspective out what I’ll euphemistically call “Applied Political Science”.

Don’t get me wrong; many of them are fantastic people.  I’m talking about the stereotype – which, like most stereotypes, does in fact exist.

And I’m going to guess a room full of those people are behind one of the Romney campaign’s most-complete meltdowns, one that may have cost him the election, or at least a much closer finish; the complete meltdown of “ORCA”, the campaign’s online get-out-the-vote system for the swing states.

ORCA was designed to centralize a job that is traditionally done by volunteers standing at check-in stands at polling stations with paper lists of reliable party voters.  As they check in, they are removed; as the day wears on, voters who haven’t showed up are contacted, cajoled, even driven to the polls.  ORCA intended to centralize the list, putting the “strike lists” online.

It crashed completely, utterly gutting Romney’s election-day GOTV effort:

In fact, Orca diverted scarce resources that would have been better used physically moving voters to polling places. By a rough calculation, Romney lost the election by falling 500,000 to 700,000 votes short in key swing states. If each of the 37,000 volunteers that had been devoted to Orca had instead brought 20 voters to the polls in those states over the course of the day, Romney would have won the election.

Now, did anyone in Romney’s inner circle have any experience with software engineering?  If they did, were they listened to?  The system’s beta test was election night!  This is a recipe – can I get an Amen, geeks? – for technological seppuku.

Before the election, there was much fear-mongering on the Democratic side about the Republicans’ supposed plans to suppress turnout among Obama voters. After the election, GOP strategist Karl Rove accused the Obama campaign of “suppressing the vote” by running a negative campaign against Romney that kept voters at home.

The truth is much worse. There was, in fact, massive suppression of the Republican vote–by the Romney campaign, through the diversion of nearly 40,000 volunteers to a failing computer program.

There was no Plan B; there was only confusion, and silence.

There’s an old adage in software development:  you can have your product cheap, fast, or with impeccable quality; pick two.  To be fair, we don’t know that ORCA was cheap, either.

5 thoughts on “Software Rollout From Hell

  1. Agreed using a beta with that much at stake was a monumental organizational failure.

    However, ORCA should not be scrapped. It should be analyzed, rearchitected, and if need be re-engineered between now and Mar 1 2013, then with ongoing incremental upgrades on a 6 week schedule, it should be used for every little school board referendum and mayoral race (ideally in those states where the 2014 race will play out for house & senate races)next fall as a real beta with a fully operational go live target of 2014 where it will be sorely needed. Also the republican party should copyright and patent all or as much of it as they can. Open sourcing it would be suicidal.

  2. The system’s beta test was election night! This is a recipe – can I get an Amen, geeks? – for technological seppuku.


    Question: wasn’t Romney’s chief qualification his business savvy and turn-around skills? This alleged incident puts that qualification in doubt, especially if there was no backup plan for troubles with an untested program.

  3. I don’t think the problem was software.
    When management fails, it is not unheard of to blame software.

  4. Great point, Terry! I have seen that happen more than a few times over the past 15 years.

  5. “This is a recipe – can I get an Amen, geeks? – for technological seppuku.”


    Terry said: “When management fails …”

    Indeed. And “The system’s beta test was election night!” is definitely a management failure.

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