Voting like an astronaut: How ballots are cast at the space station

NASA recently posted a photo of astronaut Kate Rubin after casting her election ballot while in orbit. The space agency also detailed the process enabling spacefarers to vote hundreds of miles above the Earth.


Image: NASA

Millions of people across the US have already voted ahead of the 2020 presidential election. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, individuals are embracing a wide range of voting methods this year such as early in-person voting, mail-in ballots, and more. Others have exercised their civic duty while in orbit hundreds of miles above the Earth. Last week, NASA released a photograph depicting astronaut Kate Rubins aboard the International Space Station floating in front of an "ISS voting booth." In a recent post, the space agency detailed the process enabling astronauts to vote in space.

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"Taking the time to cast a ballot from space shows truly how important it is to vote in this election. I admire the dedication of astronauts like Kate Rubins who show us how important it is to participate in the democratic process, even from 200 miles above Earth," said Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins via email.

In 1997, a bill was passed making it possible for astronauts to vote from space in the state of Texas. Seeing as astronauts move to Houston for training purposes, most astronauts vote as residents of Texas, according to NASA, although the space agency said that astronauts can work with counties in their home states to "make special arrangements" to allow them to vote in space.

To vote in space, astronauts must first complete a Federal Postcard Application (FPCA). Once the FPCA is approved, the official who oversees elections in the county where the astronaut is registered sends NASA a test ballot. Then using a training computer for the space station they test the ability to complete the ballot and send this back to the election official, NASA explained.

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Following a successful test, the Clerk's office generates a secure electronic ballot and Johnson Space Center's Mission Control Center uplinks the ballot to the astronaut aboard the space station. The specific crew member is then sent an email from the county clerk containing the astronaut's credentials enabling the crew member to access their secure ballot.

Next, the astronaut votes, the ballot is downlinked, and then delivered via email to the county clerk's office. Using a special password, only the clerk is able to open the astronaut's ballot, according to NASA.

"It's always exciting to hear unique stories about the importance of voting, especially when it involves something as rare as voting from space. There was definitely a buzz of excitement around our office when the request came in for this particular ballot," Hollins said via email.

Rubins cast her election ballot from space earlier this month, but it wasn't her first voting experience in orbit. As a member of the Expedition 48-49, Rubins also voted in the 2016 election from the space station. Over the years, numerous astronauts have voted from space, according to NASA. 

"Making sure every voter can cast a ballot is critical to everything we do – whether that voter is a first responder who works nontraditional hours, a senior citizen who needs to vote by mail, a first time voter, or an astronaut voting from space," Hollins said via email.

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