Recently I spent a few hours making calls for the Obama campaign at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Although I was really inspired when I arrived and saw just how many people were plugging away and how excited people seemed, I left with a feeling of dissatisfaction. The reason is because the experience served as a vivid reminder of how poorly information technology is being utilized by our democracy.
The first problem to become obvious was that people in battleground states were getting multiple repeat calls from the campaign, as many as a dozen the same day in the final stretch. This was frustrating for both the voter and the callers. One person near me reached a voter who said "If I get one more call from Obama’s campaign I’m not going to vote for him". I reached a number of people who were patient enough with me to explain that this was the nth time they had been called and that yes they knew where their polling location was. I also called plenty of people who simply hung up as soon as I announced myself. Keep in mind that I was supposedly calling a list of "Obama supporters". I put that in quotes because it was never made clear whether that just meant registered Democrats or something else. Either way, in several hours of calling, I don’t think I reached one person who sounded particularly happy to hear from me. That might be because I was tasked with calling back only people that had previously been marked as either having been left a message or were otherwise unavailable (I was working off already marked up call sheets and instructed to mark this second round of calls using boxes rather than circles for effect). Other people seemed to be having some pleasant conversations, I guess I just lucked out.
The next obvious problem was that the majority of voters on the calling rolls either were not answering their phones or the numbers were out of date. For those of us calling Florida, we were first instructed to not leave messages if we were unable to reach the voter, then we were told we should. There was some implication that the campaign didn’t want to risk giving people information about their polling location if they were not Obama supporters, but that in the final hours of the campaign it made more sense to leave messages than not. The implication was made more explicit when we were told that if we reached a McCain supporter we should simply apologize for calling them and hang up, and not give them their polling location information. This really bothered me. The justification was supposedly that there was so little time left, it had to be spent only on Obama supporters, but I wonder if the instructions were any different earlier in the campaign. It had a tinge of voter suppression to it and that’s something I don’t want to be involved with whether you are for my candidate or not. On top of that, it’s potentially a missed opportunity for the campaign to breed unity by telling people "it doesn’t matter if you don’t want to vote for our candidate, we want to make sure you have the opportunity to vote, because it is important". I can guarantee you the McCain camp wouldn’t do that, and just like the good business practice of telling people where to go when you don’t have what they are looking for, it breeds trust.
The next thing that only became apparent after making calls for a while was that the system for flagging calls doesn’t entirely make sense. For each call completed, you had to mark one of Voted / Will Vote / Won’t Vote / McCain Supporter / Wrong Number / Left Message / NA. My first concern was that I definitely spoke to some people who sounded like they were telling me I had called the wrong number just to get me to go away. I understand that, I just don’t know what impact it has on voter information files once that goes back into the system (if it does at all). The NA option is to be used if the caller is not home, refused the call, hostile, asked to be called back, has a language barrier or for any other reason. We were told to explicitly write down "hostile" if that was the case. However, on the script sheet there is a note that says "For Data Entry, all NA = ‘Not Home’". Well hello, if that isn’t a boneheaded way to make sure that people who don’t want to get called end up getting called lots and lots of times, I don’t know what is.
None of that bothered me as much as the options for recording someone’s voting intention. We were told that if someone is going to vote for Obama we should mark "Will Vote", but if they were voting for McCain mark "McCain". The problem with this wasn’t immediately apparent to me until I reached my first voter who told me her intention was to vote, but who she was voting for was "none of your damn business". So, now it would seem I should mark that as "Will Vote", except that those are supposed to mean "will vote for Obama". I started wondering how skewed internal polling might be if every "Will Vote" counted that way, since I was reaching a lot more people who told me they would be voting but not who they were voting for than those who explicitly said Obama. Once this really sunk in, I decided to not even ask explicitly who they were voting for because most people seemed annoyed by it and it was uncomfortable, and if someone was a McCain supporter they would quickly make that known whether you asked or not. The same issue of course exists for people who said they voted early.
So looking back on all of this, I’m struck by the fact that most of this is primarily an IT problem. A lot of people, including campaign staff, were noting how the abundance of cell phones has changed the nature of phone drives. It was certainly amazing to be able to show up with a cell phone and be making calls five minutes later. But what is even more amazing to me is that no one is asked to bring a laptop if they have one. Looking around, I would guess that the majority of people making calls owned a laptop. Why were we all working off of sheets of paper many of which had already been marked up several times by other volunteers? Why weren’t we working off our laptops and WiFi, requesting a single voter at a time to call and recording the results directly – thus bypassing the need for campaign staff to be constantly tallying, and preventing unnecessary repeat calls (not to mention the difficulty in keeping track of both your script and your place in the middle of a long list of names). Supposedly such a tool exists for people who want to make calls from home, so why weren’t we encouraged to use that at the gathering?
I frankly wouldn’t have been surprised by any of this at other candidate’s campaign drives, but this is for Obama, who supposedly "gets" technology more than any other candidate up to this point and has run the most well organized campaign ever seen by the Democratic party. How can I believe Obama’s campaign promise to streamline the healthcare system through better use of Information Technology when it isn’t even getting done in his own campaign for the presidency? This isn’t even touching on our pathetic electronic voting systems (I’ll save that for after the election). How is it that any of a hundred two-person web startups out there can properly keep track of their user base but the Democratic party still can’t? Hopefully Obama’s CTO will get serious on this so that by the second decade we could get a little more caught up with the new millennium, but I’m not holding my breath.