Because you asked and because we were wondering about it ourselves, we reached out to NASA to learn how an astronaut aboard the International Space Station is able to cast a voting ballot? The short answer is that no, they do not just take off work and drive down to the polling place and wait in line to cast their vote—but I am sure you had already figured that out. The process is much more complicated.
Astronauts who live aboard the International Space Station are still United States citizens and yes, they are given the same rights as you and I and they are allowed to vote in their chosen elections.
Now, as you might imagine most astronauts live in the Houston area and they for the most part, take up residency there years before they are shot off up into space. They move to the Houston area because they have to complete years worth of training and simulations that would make living in a place like Billings, Montana nearly impossible. So, because they are all mostly residents of Texas, the issue was taken up here in the Lone Star State.
Back in 1997 (75the Legislature) Texas passed a bill that amended that voting process for astronauts voting is space. The rule amends the voting process to allow astronauts in Brazoria, Galveston and Harris counties to vote via electronic ballot.
As everything is with NASA the process is pretty complicated, but we were able to have them break it down for us. Astronauts will choose which elections that they want to vote in (federal, state, county, municipal) while they are in space. This process takes place months before they even blast off. Right around Election Day, mission controllers beam up a ballot via an encrypted and secure email. NASA says that email contains a secure ballot that the astronaut will fill out and return to earth via a secured encrypted link.
Now for the gritty details.
Months ahead of time the astronauts will fill out a federal elections post card just like members of our military do. That form must be PHYSICALLY filled out and mailed in and can submitted as much as a year in advance. On that post card is where the astronauts will select which elections they wanted to vote in.
From there, somebody at the designated county clerks office will send a sample ballot over to NASA. A clerk at NASA will use a test computer and make sure that the ballot can be properly filled out and transmitted prior to the election. Once that takes place, the ballot is transmitted back to the county clerk via another secure email. Once the county clerk approves that the ballot is secure and ready to be sent up to the International Space Station, they create a completely digital ballot and send it back over to Johnson Space Center. From there, controllers will uplink that approved ballot to the American astronauts aboard the Station.
The astronauts will specify on their electronic voting certificate that their address is “Low Earth Orbit” and they will proceed to fill the ballot out within the contents of the approved email.
The next step is when the astronaut finishes filling out their ballot it gets transmitted back to earth and NASA via that same secured link. They will then send the ballot over to the appropriate county clerk. The county clerk then accesses the astronaut ballot via a secured link and password and counts it along with everybody else’s ballot.
So, in case you were wondering how astronauts voted from space, that is how they do it. We knew you would appreciate that.