WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney’s online voter-turnout operation suffered a meltdown on Election Day, resulting in a crucial 90-minute “buckling” of the system in Boston and the inability of some campaign workers across the country to use a vital smartphone program, according to campaign officials and volunteers.
Code-named ORCA, the program was kept secret until just before the election in order to prevent hacking of the system. It was then trumpeted by Romney’s aides as an unrivaled high-tech means of communicating with more than 30,000 field workers who were stationed at polling places on Election Day. Those volunteers were supposed to track who voted and to alert Boston headquarters if turnout was lower than expected at key precincts.
But at Boston’s TD Garden, where 800 Romney workers were staffing phones and computers in coordination with the field workers to oversee the turnout, the surge in traffic was so great that the system didn’t work for 90 minutes, causing panic as staffers frantically tried to restore service. Some campaign workers also reported that they had incorrect PINS and had not been informed that they needed certification to work at polling places.
“The Garden definitely kind of buckled under the strain,” Zac Moffatt, the campaign’s digital director, confirmed in an interview. “The system wasn’t ready for the amount of information incoming.”
Despite the problems, Moffatt said, the campaign had reports by the end of the day from 91 percent of counties, with information about 14 million voters, and he discounted speculation from frustrated campaign volunteers who worried the problems might have cost Romney the election.
“I definitely understand the frustration of people,” he said, while adding that the problems were not “election determinative.”
Romney himself trumpeted the program shortly before Election Day in a video message to volunteers. Titled, “Thank you for your help with Project ORCA,” the video showed Romney saying he was “encouraged to hear how well it is coming along. As part of this task force, you’ll be the key link in providing critical, real-time information to me and to the staff so that we can ensure that every last supporter makes it to the polls. With state-of-the-art technology, and an extremely dedicated group of volunteers, our campaign will have an unprecedented advantage on Election Day.”
But the technology did not live up to Romney’s billing, at least during the crash. The campaign did not respond to a question about whether a particular contractor was primarily responsible for the program but said it was overseen by staff.
While campaign workers in Boston struggled on their end to get the system back online, volunteers across the country reported a variety of problems, some of them unrelated to the issues at the Garden.
John Ekdahl Jr., a 34-year-old Romney campaign worker and Web developer from Jacksonville, Fla., said in a telephone interview Friday that he was sent a 60-page document by the campaign Monday that included instructions on how to use the program and a list of voters at his polling place. That sent him on a frantic run to find a store to print out the documentation. Still, as a web developer, he felt comfortable with the ORCA program, which is actually a webpage and not a typical smartphone app.
Ekdahl’s instructions were to go to his polling place with the list of voters, use the secure campaign web page, and push a virtual “slider” on his phone to alert Boston that an individual had voted. In theory, this was a 21st century equivalent of the traditional “strike list,” in which campaign workers check off names of voters on reams of paper so that headquarters can know who cast ballots. The idea was to make everything happen instantaneously, with the names sent via the ORCA application to headquarters, where workers would try to track down likely supporters who had not turned out.
But when Edkahl went to his polling place with the document and his smartphone, he was told that he needed a certificate to allow him to work there. Checking his document, he found that he was not told about the certification. He spent several hours trying to tell the campaign about the problem but got nowhere. He gave up at 2 p.m., depriving the campaign of data at his station. He said he heard from a number of other volunteers across the country who had the same problem.
“I’m hearing almost universal condemnation of the thing,” said Ekdahl, who first wrote about the “unmitigated disaster” of ORCA on his personal blog. “It seemed like the basic coordination between ground ops and overall team was lacking.”
As problems continued throughout Election Day, Romney volunteers took to their Twitter accounts and blogs to seek help or express frustration. One volunteer wrote on his blog that he was told that he couldn’t use a smartphone with a camera at the polling place, making it impossible to use the application.
A number of deeply upset volunteers wrote on a Romney campaign message board that they could not get the program to work and were unable to get through to technical support, either receiving a busy signal or a recording that said try again later.
“I have called the ORCA helpline. It was supposed to be live at 5 a.m. . . . still getting a recording. Com on Boston we can’t help Mitt if you won’t help us.!!!!!” one volunteer wrote.
Some volunteers apparently did not understand how to access the ORCA application, mistakenly thinking they had to download it for their phone. But the application wasn’t in iTunes or the Android store; it was a “web application,” requiring the field workers to access it via a secure Internet connection.
There were reports that volunteers in some states could not get the security code supplied by the campaign to work on the web page. An anonymous campaign official was quoted on the conservative website, Breitbart.com, as saying that hundreds of volunteers in Colorado had called to report problems.
“The user names and passwords were wrong, but the reset password tool didn’t work, and we couldn’t change phone PINs,” the official was quoted as saying. “We were told the problems were limited and asked to project confidence, have people use pencil and paper, and try to submit again later. Then at 6 p.m. they admitted they had issued the wrong PINs to every volunteer in Colorado, and reissued new PINs (which also didn’t work).”
Moffatt, asked whether there was a problem with PINs that made it impossible to use the application, said he did not know.
Moffatt is the cofounder of Targeted Victory, a Virginia-based consulting firm that has a contract to work for the Romney campaign, according to the company’s website.
It is not clear if the reported problems with the PINs happened as a result of the crash at TD Garden or were a secondary failure.
A senior official in President Obama’s campaign said it had experienced problems when it first used a similar system in 2008. The official said the campaign had learned from that experience and, after two dry runs earlier this year, had no significant glitches in its Election Day program that also relied on a smartphone program. The official spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to talk about the matter on the record.
Romney campaign officials had expressed great confidence in the program. In an interview aired on Monday on PBS, campaign spokesman Gail Gitcho gave what appears to be the first extended preview of ORCA, describing it as a revolutionary tool to help the campaign boost turnout.
“At 5 o’clock when the exit polls come out, we won’t pay attention to that,” Gitcho said. “We will have had much more scientific information just based on the political operation we have set up.”
Despite months of preparation for obtaining the needed Election Day bandwidth, the crash apparently occurred because of the strain of so much Internet traffic in the Romney operation in a short period of time, campaign volunteers said.Michael Kranish can be reached at email@example.com.
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