Election 2022: How astronauts vote from space

If you happen to be off Earth when an election rolls around, you can still cast your ballot.

The U.S. midterm elections are happening today (Nov. 8), and the three Americans currently living aboard the International Space Station (ISS) — NASA astronauts Josh Cassada, Nicole Mann and Frank Rubio — have ample opportunity to participate.

NASA's Kate Rubins explained how off-Earth voting is done in a NASA video Q&A , which was posted in November 2020, while she was living aboard the orbiting lab. 

"It's actually pretty similar to the process of voting by absentee ballot from home," she said in the video, which celebrated the 20th anniversary of continued human presence on the ISS.

Before she launched toward the station, Rubins filled out a Federal Postcard Application (FPCA). The FPCA is similar to the absentee ballot application many other U.S. citizens fill out but is used specifically for people who are overseas during an election, such as military members and their families — though at times, depending on the space station's orbit, astronauts on the ISS aren't technically overseas. 

Video: How to vote from space: NASA astronaut explains how she did it

Most astronauts who vote while in space choose to vote as Texas residents because they move to Houston for training before their mission begins, according to NASA. A 1997 state law passed in Texas allows for legal voting from space, with an absentee ballot system set for astronauts to vote with the address "low Earth orbit."

Before an astronaut can vote, NASA has to test that the ballot can be filled out. The county clerk sends a test ballot to NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston and a space station training computer tests whether someone is able to fill the ballot out and send it back to the clerk. 

If the ballot passes the test, the real ballot is encrypted and sent to the astronaut on the ISS. The clerk also sends credentials specific to the voting crew member for security in opening the ballot. The astronaut then fills it out electronically and sends it by email back down to the county clerk to record the vote. The clerk also has a password to ensure they're the only person who can open the email. 

Like those of us on Earth, a voting astronaut must send in their vote by 7 p.m. Central Time on election day for the vote to count. 

Although it's not an official part of the process, Rubins created her own voting booth on board the space station back in 2020. She closed the door on her crew quarters and put up a hand-written sign that said "ISS Voting Booth." 

"It's our small little area where we sleep and have our computer," she said in the video. "It's a private area on the space station and it seems like it would be about the right size for a voting booth back down at home."

Rubins has voted from orbit twice. She was also on the space station during the presidential election in 2016. 

Editor's note: This story was updated on Nov. 7, 2022.

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Kasandra Brabaw
Contributing Writer

Kasandra Brabaw is a freelance science writer who covers space, health, and psychology. She's been writing for Space.com since 2014, covering NASA events, sci-fi entertainment, and space news. In addition to Space.com, Kasandra has written for Prevention, Women's Health, SELF, and other health publications. She has also worked with academics to edit books written for popular audiences.