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How to thwart Election Day hackers: Vote the old-fashioned way

The country's outdated, offline voting machines could actually save the election from cyberattacks, say experts at a Congressional hearing.

Image by Alexandre Normand, CC BY 2.0

The 400-pound hacker Donald Trump warned about Monday night can't ruin Election Day, experts told Congress.

As hacks continue to influence the 2016 election, Congress has been looking into whether cyberattacks could actually affect the ballot on November 8.

A congressional subcommittee on information technology gathered on Wednesday, inviting high-ranking officials from the Department of Homeland Security and the US Election Assistance Commission, as well as cybersecurity experts to testify on how hackers could hijack the 2016 presidential elections.

All five witnesses agreed that a cyberattack would not affect the outcome of the presidential election this November.

The electronic voting system's best line of defense against cyberattacks is that the machines aren't connected to the internet, meaning hackers would have to show up in person to hijack the election.

A rash of cyberattacks have already disrupted campaigns this year. Hackers leaked emails and voice messages from the Democratic National Committee in July and also broke into voter databases. In both incidents, the FBI pointed to foreign hackers who infiltrated the networks from far away.

"The voting system is the most secure system in the election space. It is not networked, it's not on the internet, and it's tested many times in many ways," Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp said during the hearing.

In 2015, up to 42 states used voting machines that were more than a decade old. The outdated technology in these machines is vulnerable, but hackers would have to literally unscrew machines in order to install malicious hardware. Doing this undetected at multiple polling sites would be difficult.

Dr. Andrew Appel, a Princeton University professor, demonstrated how to hack voting machines in New Jersey in 2009. In his testimony to Congress today, he pushed for all 50 states to abandon touchscreen voting machines and to bring back paper ballots.

Dr. Andy Ozment from the Department of Homeland Security discussed measures the agency is taking to protect the election.

Screenshot by Alfred Ng/CNET

The second line of defense is the hundreds of voting counties across the country, each with their own set of regulations and machines. The diversity of voting systems makes it difficult for hackers to have a significant effect on the election results.

"There is no national system that a hacker or a bad actor can infiltrate to affect the American elections as a whole," Thomas Hicks, chairman of the US Election Assistance Commission, told the subcommittee.

But while the ballots are safe, the campaign trail and voters can still be targeted. The DNC and voter registration records were easier for hackers to breach because they were both stored on a network.

Up to 200,000 voters in Illinois had their personal data stolen, while malicious software was discovered in Arizona's voter system after the breach discovered in August.

The streak of incidents raised alarms for Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, who pushed for treating the electronic voting system as "critical infrastructure."

The agency has taken steps to protect state and federal officials from cyberattacks, providing "cyber hygiene scannings" with weekly reports on vulnerabilities.

"Our voting infrastructure is fundamentally resilient," Andy Ozment, Homeland Security's assistant secretary for cybersecurity and communications, testified.