Hold on to your lugnuts, ES&S and Sequoia may risk Hursti-style hack

Dec. 13, 2005: Harri Hursti performs devastating hack in Leon County Florida with Diebold optical scan system, proving he could control votes by manipulating a credit-card-sized memory card..

Jan. 3, 2006: Information received pointing to similar vulnerabilities in the ES&S and Sequoia "Optech" optical scan machines.

In an exclusive interview by BBV investigator Jim March with Dr. Douglas Jones, University of Iowa associate professor and a former voting machine examiner for the state of Iowa, it was learned that one of the most widely-used voting machines over the last 15 years may suffer from design flaws broadly similar to Diebold's version 1.94 and 1.96 optical scan system.

The first problem is that memory chip contents can be modified with easy to obtain reprogramming devices, in ways that could enable Hursti-style hacking.

The second problem is that Sequoia and ES&S have been able to force their way into intimate access to the mechanics of democracy. The electronic ballot controls were maintained exclusively by the vendors at the vendor's headquarters rather than by county election staff.

Diebold took over total control of elections in counties that allowed it. ES&S and Sequoia didn't give them a choice because of the system's design. This effectively removed county officials from their proper oversight role.


Two of the four major voting machine companies have been using an identical machine, the Optech, originally produced by Business Records Corp (BRC).

BRC was the largest voting machine company in America when ES&S purchased it in 1997. The SEC objected on anti-trust grounds, and in the resulting decision, allowed ES&S to purchase BRC, splitting the Optech scanners up between ES&S (service contracts for existing machines) and Sequoia Voting Systems (sales of new machines).

Although now being phased out, Optechs have been used for 15 years without a peep from the federal testing labs, and without the public ever being told of their vulnerabilities, nor of the vendor’s extraordinary level of control over local elections.


According to Dr. Jones, the Optech machines are precinct optical scanners originally developed in the late 1980s. They reflect the technology of that period. They are broadly similar to the Global/Diebold optical scanners designed around the same time: These voting machines store votes on removable electronic memory devices and print out an "end of day ticker tape" on paper similar to a cash register tape, providing a precinct total of votes for each candidate and issue.

The Optech machines don't use a credit card-sized memory card – rather, they use a memory pack about the size of a pack of cigarettes.

This cigarette pack-sized device plugs into the body of the scanner with a proprietary connection. The memory pack provides three things:

- A chip ("ROM" memory) which is difficult to modify outside of a factory and contains the programming for the machine ("firmware")
- An "EPROM" chip which is easier to modify (more on that to follow) containing the ballot layout and precinct information
- Battery-powered memory chips to hold the vote totals


As Dr. Jones points out, there's one advantage to this pack design. Honest election officials can separate the scanner body from the pack and send the large bulky scanner out to the field (precinct) days or weeks ahead of the election. Tampering with scanners that are missing the pack isn't really possible (other than to simply vandalize it) because the "brains" aren't present to tamper with. It’s the "memory pack" that needs to be held in strict security. The memory pack can later be hand-carried to the precinct by a group of poll workers and plugged into the scanner on election morning.


One reason the Hursti hack in Leon County resulted in a failure is that Diebold's memory device holding the votes and critical programs is both read-write (tamperable) and reader/writer devices like the Crop Scanner are available commercially to alter the cards.

The ES&S/Sequoia memory pack has a funky connector. It should be even more secure, right?

Not exactly.


1. Unscrew the top of the pack.

The most critical chip holding the ballot/candidate/precinct layouts is sitting right there in an easy-access socket.

2. Find a chip burner. Once the chip is out with a screwdriver, you can find alteration devices (chip burner) for that chip even more easily that you can find the Crop Scanner.

Tip for finding a read/write device: The chips is called an "EPROM" - Electrically Programmable Read Only Memory .

Here are some examples:

3. Put the chip in the chip burner device connected to a PC and read the contents. Edit at will using your PC.

4. Peel the sticker off the back of the EPROM, exposing a glass window. This makes the actual silicon surface visible through the glass. It's a neat looking critter, shiny and with lots of tiny circuits that geeks will love.

5. Put the chip in a tiny mouse-sized tanning booth. No, we’re not kidding – exposure to UV light for 25 minutes erases EPROMs. (Warning: We do not recommend putting in an actual mouse unless you can find very small sunglasses for him.)


6. Put the sticker back on the chip’s glass window and put it into the chip burner connected to the PC, and download your tampered code from your PC back to the chip.

7. Put the chip back into the "pack" and you’re done.

We have no reason to think that the security of the chip's contents is any better than in the Diebold environment. While this needs testing, it appears that hacking could cause all votes to be switched between any two candidates simply by altering the chip data.

Dr. Jones suggests the possibility of causing a minor party candidate's votes to go to a major party candidate, in addition to the major party candidate's proper votes. This would have the "benefit" of harming a small parties, possibly denying them ballot access. Each major party has at least one smaller party that tends to take a small chunk out of them – the Democrats always lose a few candidates to the Greens, the GOP loses a few to the Libertarians. Each major party would like to see their smaller more radical cousin go away, and that sort of hacking could do it.


While moderately advanced hackers should be able to alter the contents of these packs fairly easily, county election officials can’t. Therefore, by design, the memory cards need to be programmed inside the vendor’s corporate headquarters.


Well let’s see: ES&S was partially owned by now-Senator Chuck Hagel at the time Hagel won his first major political victory to get into congress. Hagel’s victory in the primary was so stunning that it made national news. According to CNN’s "All Politics," Hagel hoped he could make lightening strike twice by winning the big prize – and he did. He defeated popular Democratic Governor Ben Nelson who led in the polls since the opening gun in what the Washington Post called "The major Republican upset in the November [1996] election." (more:

Louisiana state elections chief Jerry Fowler was convicted on felony charges of taking bribes from Sequoia officials for system purchase decisions – one of Sequoia’s key people, Phil Foster, was indicted but the charges were dropped after a judge concluded that his immunized grand jury testimony couldn’t be used against him. (more:

So, is turning over the very foundation of Democracy to ES&S and Sequoia a good idea? We think not.


Nobody at the Federal or state testing labs seems to think like a hacker and tries to find ways to defeat these things. For that matter, nobody is paying attention to the basic ethics of the situation. No one ever asked the American citizens whether we choose to remain a Constitutional Republic versus a Corporate Republic.

Black Box Voting would like to do a "test hack" on the Optech with the blessing of public officials in any jurisdiction. Because these machines are not HAVA compliant, they are being phased out. We ask your help in facilitating this opportunity.

"There is only one force in the nation that can be depended upon to keep the government pure and the governors honest, and that is the people themselves. They alone, if well informed, are capable of preventing the corruption of power, and of restoring the nation to its rightful course if it should go astray. They alone are the safest depository of the ultimate powers of government."
-- Thomas Jefferson - END

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