Earlier this week, NASA announced that astronaut Kate Rubins had officially cast her vote from a makeshift voting booth aboard the International Space Station. As much as we’d like to believe her ballot came back to Earth in a tiny rocket, the actual transmission was much more mundane. Basically, it got sent to her county clerk as a PDF.
As NASA explains, voting from space begins the same way as voting abroad. Astronauts, like military members and other American citizens living overseas, must first submit a Federal Postcard Application (FPCA) to request an absentee ballot. Once approved, they can blast off knowing that their ballot will soon follow.
After the astronaut’s county clerk completes a practice round with folks at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, they can start the real voting process. The astronaut will then receive two electronic documents: a password-protected ballot sent by the Space Center’s mission control center, and an email with the password sent by the county clerk. The astronaut then “downlinks” (sends via satellite signal) their filled-out ballot back to the Space Center attendants, who forward it to the county clerk. Since the clerk needs a password to open the ballot, they’re the only other person who sees the astronaut’s responses. Then, as NPR reports, they copy the votes onto a regular paper ballot and submit it with the rest of them.
Though Americans have been visiting space for more than half a century, the early jaunts weren’t long enough to necessitate setting up a voting system from orbit. That changed in 1996, when John Blaha missed out on voting in the general election because his spaceflight to Russia’s space station Mir began in September—before absentee voters received their ballots—and he didn’t return until January 1997. So, as The Washington Post reports, NASA officials collaborated with Texas government officials to pass a law allowing astronauts to cast their ballots from space. In the fall of 1997, David Wolf became the first astronaut to submit his vote from a space station. The law is specific to Texas because most active astronauts reside there, but NASA has said that the process can be done from other states if need be.