1. News

Human error and call company's hands-off approach led to faulty Election Day robocalls

Published Nov. 16, 2012

After robocalls went out on Election Day telling Pinellas County residents that "tomorrow" was the last day to vote, blame for the national embarrassment ricocheted from Largo to Santa Monica, Calif.

At first, Pinellas Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark pointed at CallFire Inc., the California-based broadcast messaging company she paid to remind 38,700 voters to return their mail ballots. CallFire CEO Dinesh Ravishanker shot back, blaming the debacle on the elections office and "human error."

But images of the CallFire program provided by Clark's office, as well as interviews with election and county officials, now suggest the botched calls were caused by a combination of public servants' blunders and CallFire's hands-off approach.

Clark paid about $3,200 for CallFire, a company that Hillsborough's supervisor of elections mentioned to her when she asked for a recommendation. Hillsborough doesn't use the program, spokesman Travis Abercrombie said.

"I think they were looking for different call services, and it was one that we heard about," he said. Clark didn't research other options, according to her spokeswoman, Nancy Whitlock.

No one showed Marc Gillette, the Pinellas elections office IT director, how to use CallFire, Whitlock said. And the company didn't assist him on Monday, Nov. 5 — the day before the election — when he logged on at 4:50 p.m. and scheduled the calls to run until 8 p.m.

Such a removed approach is common in the industry, said Matt Florell, the president and founder of Fextel Inc., a St. Petersburg-based company that routinely sends out robocalls for clients.

"A company like CallFire … you input your own call list, and you're on your own," he said. "There's no hand holding, there's no approval, there's no validation."

Knowing that his clients are unlikely to read his program's 300-page manual, Florell likes to remain in control of robocalls. His customers typically record their own messages, but they give the audio files to his staff to oversee their distribution. He also double-checks client recordings.

"We once had a client who sent us a message that was completely wrong," he said. "They sent us a recording for their primary election and not for the general election, so it was talking about their opponent in the primary. We caught that."

At the end of the day on Nov. 5, when Gillette checked CallFire, he didn't notice the program had not completed the calls, said Paul Alexander, the county's director of Business Technology Services. He described CallFire's system as "not intuitive."

By default, the program scheduled the remaining calls to be made Election Day morning, Alexander said.

Images of the CallFire program provided by Whitlock back up that assertion.

To prevent calls from going out on Election Day, Gillette would have had to click the "add schedule" button, be taken to another screen, and then manually uncheck all day-of-the-week boxes but Monday.

He did not do that.

"Usually, when you have an application like that, it will only do something if you tell it to do it," Alexander said. "In this case, it was set up by default to resume, and you had to tell it not to do it."

No staff member "clicked start," as the CallFire CEO claimed last week. Ravishanker told the Tampa Bay Times that one of Clark's employees had signed into the company's system at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday to restart the calls.

However, residents report receiving the calls starting at 8 a.m., a time line at odds with Ravishanker's account. He has since refused to answer questions about the error.

The erroneous messages went out to more than 12,000 people before Gillette discovered the problem and logged in again at 8:34 a.m. to cut them off. Elections officials quickly dispatched another message, which, confusingly, did not refer to the erroneous one it was trying to correct. Instead, it told voters: "Today, Nov. 6, is Election Day."

One mystery that election officials said CallFire has yet to explain is why the calls placed on Tuesday went out three times faster than the ones on Monday.

Florell offered one possible explanation. Clark's recording was brief, only 24 seconds, and should not have taken more than a few hours to distribute, he said. But phone lines are easily overwhelmed the day before an election, when companies like his place hundreds of thousands of robocalls. Jammed phone lines can cause delays, he said, something his company has struggled with in the past.

Before he stopped responding to reporters' calls, Ravishanker alluded to this, saying that if clients believe they can't get their calls out in time, they can ask for extra phone lines.

Last weekend, Clark took full responsibility for the robocalls.

"We will not do business with this company again," her spokeswoman wrote in an email. "All software will be thoroughly tested before we decide whether to use it. Calls to voters will only be made if absolutely necessary."

More than a week after the election, is it still unclear whether the calls placed on Election Day confused voters or dissuaded any from voting. Also unknown: whether the botched messages reached more Democrats or Republicans.

Some residents knew they were incorrect; others were simply fed up. Another recorded message call. Another Election Day push.

"My wife was talking to her sister in New York when her call was interrupted by a robocall," complained Tom Wisniewski, a Pinellas resident. "This … has got to cease."