Since the Civil War, servicemembers have participated in U.S. elections by mail, giving voters away from home a chance to cast a ballot. Election supervisors are making provisions for another group of traveling voters to participate in the November 3 election — astronauts more than 250 miles above the Earth.
When NASA astronaut Shannon Walker arrives on the space station, she’s got some important things to do: adjust to weightlessness, unpack her bags and if she gets to the ISS in time she plans to vote. Come election day, there could be as many as four U.S. astronauts aboard the station and all four will be able to vote 250 miles above the Earth.
“All of us are planning on voting from space,” said Walker. “NASA works very well with the different election organizations because we’re all voting in different from different counties. But it was easiest for us just to say we were going to vote for space. So that’s what we’re going to do.”
Walker’s launch, which includes two other NASA astronauts, has been delayed. While that crew might not make it to the orbiting polls by election day, NASA astronaut Kate Rubin, who launches mid-October on a Russian Soyuz capsule, plans to vote from space.
The process is similar to how military service members stationed overseas vote. The difference in this case is if you’re in space we don’t have like a little rocket ship like Marvin, the Martian on the old bugs, bunny cartoons that could just go back and forth quickly,” said UCF political scientists Abrey Jewett. Instead “it is done electronically.”
Voting in space isn’t new. In fact it’s been happening for more than 20 years. When it comes to voting, it’s up to the states to make laws. Since astronauts train for launches at the Johnson Space Center Houston, they live and work in Texas. That state drafted legislation in 1997 allowing astronauts to vote off-planet and digitally return ballots to Texas-based elections supervisors.
“It actually was something that was embraced by the local leadership,” said historian and collectSpace.com editor Robert Pearlman. “Senators and local politicians saw it as an opportunity to show that American democracy extends to wherever Americans are. We let people vote from around the world so why not let them vote from off the world, too?”
This is one space race the U.S. didn’t win, however. Russians were in fact the first to vote from orbit. NASA’s David Wolf was the first American to cast a ballot form space, voting in 1997 from the Russian Mir space station via email.
For U.S Astronauts, the process is quite simple. Before launching, astronauts let their local supervisor know they want to vote from space. That official gives NASA a digital ballot which is emailed to the space station. Each astronaut has a unique password that opens the ballot, they fill it out digital and beam it back down to Earth. The county supervisor then transfers the responses to a paper ballot and it’s counted just like the rest of them.
“It works great,” said retired NASA astronaut Nicole Stott, who cast her ballot from the International Space Station in 2009 along with NASA’s Jeff Williams.
“We tried to give ourselves the same experience we might have if we were going into the polls at home. We set up two floating voting stations with like a little screen in between us and our computers on their stands and put labels: Port and starboard voting booth.”
Mail-in voting has faced increased scrutiny this election cycle, led in part by President Trump. In many states, voting advocacy groups say there’s more that needs to be done to make it easier for people to vote — whether in person or by mail.
Publicity of NASA astronauts voting can help bolster support for mail-in and absentee voting. “It probably helps restore a little confidence that says ‘hey, look, well, look at the technology. Look what we can do,'” said UCF’s Aubrey Jewett. “Isn’t this a great thing that we’re expanding the franchise to people who are circling the earth? Not even not even here on earth?”
The one thing voting from space is missing — those “I Voted” stickers. “It was too bad. It would have been very cool,” said Stott of her 2009 voting experience. “Maybe I’ll send Kate an email and say, ‘make yourself one if you don’t already have one.'”