Just got back from the delightful 2017 Official Houdini Seance in Cleveland, full of Houdini history and lore. Including -- a new take on Houdini vs. Gordon Whitehead, and a new appreciation for the way Houdini's life-story has passed into our language.
It's not our take - it was written by Ben Jacobs at The Atlantic:
In 2008, the Obama campaign unveiled a revolutionary new program called Houdini that would magically make the names of those who had already voted disappear from the Get Out The Vote lists. The program -- which was only reserved for "tier 1 precincts" that the Obama campaign deemed most crucial -- was surprisingly low-tech. There would be a poll watcher and poll reporter assigned to each targeted precinct. The poll watcher would take a list of targeted voters with pulltabs next to each voter's name. When that voter had cast a ballot, the pulltab, which contained a unique ID number labeling the voter, would be removed from the list and handed to the poll reporter. At a specified times, the poll reporter would go outside and, on a cellphone, dial into an IVR system run by the Obama campaign. (IVR is the technical name for the automated phone system that asks you "to press one for English.) The reporter would then enter in each ID code on the smartphone and the data would be digitally linked to the Obama campaign's voter database. Once the voter ID was entered, that voter's name would be removed from the lists and the campaign had one less person to doorknock or call.
This was supposed to work seamlessly and it was tested by organizers across the country in advance on several dry runs. There was even a full-scale statewide practice when it was used for the Wisconsin Democratic primary on September 9, 2008. But that proved all for naught.
On Election Day, the call volume was even more than anticipated and took out the entire phone system for the Obama campaign. It didn't just effect the reporting of vote totals but effected anything that involve a central campaign phone line. If you were calling to ask where your polling place was or calling the voter protection hotline to report an irregularity, odds were that you weren't getting through. The result was a mess.
As Politico reported, runners were sent from polling places back to canvass locations and field offices. Everything was shifted to paper and handled through workarounds. As Plouffe said at Harvard, "You have to have a backup plan."
After the Obama campaign's failed Houdini experiment, it didn't give up on tracking Election Day returns electronically. Instead, as a source familiar with Obama efforts told me "we just decided not to be so ambitious.... It was basically determined that it wasn't worth the risk or the amount of work for every precinct in the country. The creators of Houdini came in from Google and decided that it wasn't possible to build a system that would scale that big."
The name of the Obama program that replaced Houdini was Gordon, after J. Gordon Whitehead, the college student who allegedly caused the death of Harry Houdini by repeatedly punching him in the stomach. In 2012, Gordon did what it was supposed to: It bested Houdini.