One evening last May in Knoxville, Tennessee, during the night of the local primary election, Dave Ball, the assistant IT director for Knox County, settled into the Naugahyde chair of his dusty home office and punched away at his desktop computer. Ball’s IT staff had finished a 14-hour day, running dress rehearsals to prepare for the ritual chaos of election night.
In a few minutes, at exactly 8 p.m., the county’s incoming precinct results would become visible to the public online. Curious, Ball typed in the address for the Knox County election website.
At 7:53, the website abruptly crashed. Staring back at Ball was a proxy error notice, a gray message plastered against a screen of purgatorial white. It read simply, “Service Unavailable.” Across East Tennessee, thousands of Knox County residents who eagerly awaited the results saw the same error message – including at the late-night election parties for various county candidates, where supporters gathered around computers at Knoxville’s Crowne Plaza Hotel and the nearby Clarion Inn and Suites.
Ball was scowling at the screen when the phone on his table buzzed. It was a message from a staffer, still on duty at the IT department: “We’ve got a problem here,” it read…