In 1997, scientist David Wolf wanted to vote in a local election, but he couldn’t make it to a polling location. Of course, between the long lines and broken machines, voting is a hassle for everyone. But Wolf had an entirely different problem: He was more than 200 miles above the Earth in space, orbiting the planet at around 17,000 miles per hour. How would he fulfill his civic duty? Enter: “space voting.”
Astronauts gained the ability to vote from space in 1997, when the Texas legislature approved a new voting system. Then governor George W. Bush signed a bill which allowed absentee ballots from astronauts in orbit. (Most American astronauts live in Texas, near Houston’s Johnson Space Center.) In the 2016 presidential election, astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Kate Rubin were able to vote from space.
Here’s how space voting was implemented: A year before launching, astronauts select which elections (federal/state/local) they’d like to vote in. Then, six months before they begin, they are emailed an encrypted PDF of the ballot from Johnson Space Center Mission Control. They then send it back to the Texas county clerk, who fills out a standard ballot with their choices.
“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.”
Now that voting from low-Earth orbit is accepted, it’s time we discuss the real question at hand: voting from Mars. In September, tech magnate and Space X CEO, Elon Musk, announced a plan for sending hundreds of people to live out their days on the planet. And weeks later, Obama announced a partnership between NASA and six private companies to tackle the same project, setting up a veritable “space race” in the private sector to colonize Mars.
The first few generations on Mars, at least, may have to skip out on voting. Musk estimates it takes 26 months to travel there from Earth, meaning absentee ballots would take four and a half years to get there and back. But it’s entirely possible voting from Mars may one day be as simple as filling out a PDF file, similar to how space voting works. Maybe in the 2050s our elections will be multi-planetary and even crazier.