Elections chief blames ‘Oprah effect’ for website crash

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California residents who had trouble using a state website to see election tallies Tuesday can blame it on the ‘Oprah effect,’ according to Secretary of State Debra Bowen.

Bowen said a huge amount of Internet user traffic overloaded her office’s website, causing it to shut down access to vote tallies until a fix could be found.


So what does a website crashing have to do with television talk show host Oprah Winfrey? ‘It’s what happens to a website when Oprah mentions it. There are so many hits immediately that the website crashes,’ Bowen said.

Oprah didn’t urge her viewers to go to Bowen’s website, but the secretary of state said there was record user traffic, no doubt caused by heavy interest in races including the gubernatorial contest between Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman and Proposition 19.

Bowen said Wednesday that her office will conduct a review to determine what went wrong. ‘We’ll certainly do a post-mortem,’ Bowen said, calling the incident ‘unfortunate.’

Assembly Speaker John Pérez (D-Los Angeles) was among those disappointed that the problem occurred and said he will look at whether additional funding might be needed to improve the computer system. ‘I’m frustrated that the capacity is not there to get results when we like,’ Pérez said.

The crash did not affect anyone’s ability to cast a vote, Bowen added. She said her office had contracted with a company to provide a ‘cloud computing’ system in which more than 100 servers, most of them outside the state agency’s office, were linked to handle what was anticipated to be a heavy workload.

‘We had a contract in place for unlimited capacity,’ Bowen said. ‘We will be doing a technical analysis, and of course we will be talking to the vendor about why unlimited capacity didn’t mean unlimited capacity.’

[Updated at 4:58 p.m. Later Wednesday, the contractor, Rackspace, said it was sorry for the website problems.

‘We at Rackspace wish to apologize to the Secretary of State and the people of California for the mistakes we made which prevented results of the Nov. 2 election from being reported in a timely manner,’ the company said in a statement.

The firm said state officials asked Rackspace to be prepared to handle big spikes in website traffic.

‘We have the equipment and experience to handle such traffic spikes, and told them so,’ the statement said. ‘But we did not comprehend the extremely high volume of traffic that was expected, and we failed to deploy the appropriate resources. We regret this error, and we apologize for it. We are taking steps to see that it doesn’t happen again, to any of our customers.’]

-- Patrick McGreevy in Sacramento