Can An Astronaut Vote From Space?

In space, no one can hear you scream (supposedly), but can anyone receive your ballot? With some astronauts spending a year or more in orbit (according to Space), the ability to cast a vote can easily become a concern.Fortunately, there is a system in place for astronauts to vote — and the process works pretty smoothly. 

For the 2020 presidential election, astronaut Kate Rubins cast her ballot from the International Space Station by way of a specially designed and encrypted absentee ballot, according to NASA. After filling out the ballot in orbit, it was sent via satellite down to Earth, first to the White Sands Complex in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and then to the Mission Control Center in Houston, which then forwarded the ballot to the county clerk office. By law, the ballot was locked in such a way that only the astronaut and the clerk had access to the data within, protecting Rubins' right to a secret ballot. It was the second time Rubins had voted from space.

Longer spaceflights led to voting from space

Voting in space first became an issue in the '90s, when lengthy stays on space stations became more common. In 1996, when the United States was abuzz about the electoral battle between Bill Clinton, Bob Dole, and Ross Perot, astronaut John Blaha was unable to officially make his pick, because his flight to the Mir Space Station was leaving in September, according to Mental Floss. This was before absentee voters were sent ballots, leaving Blaha disenfranchised on his flight, which lasted until next year.

Blaha mentioned the issue to a NASA official, who reached out to a Texas state legislator, according to the Washington Post (constitutionally, state governments, rather than the federal government, determine most election laws — via White House). Texas then passed a law allowing astronauts to vote from space via encrypted absentee ballot. Though almost all astronauts live in Texas, where NASA is headquartered, in theory this process would work for space travelers from other states as well.

Other countries allow voting from space as well

The change allowed David Wolf to become the first astronaut to vote from space in 1997, according to the Washington Post. But America isn't the only country to allow voting from orbit. It's also been a necessary process for other countries with space programs as well.

In Russia, cosmonauts on the International Space Station voted in 2011 by verbally passing their vote along to a trustee, according to NDTV. Later, the process was streamlined after Russia adopted electronic voting during the COVID-19 pandemic (to much controversy, per Reuters). In 2020, Russian cosmonaut Anatoly Ivanishin became the first person to vote online from space, according to the Moscow Times.

Since tare so few astronauts, votes from space are unlikely to ever decide the outcome of an election, but the process is important to astronauts for other reasons.

"It's something that, you know, you might or might not expect it to mean a great deal," Wolf told NPR. "But when you're so removed from your planet, small things do have a large impact."