Voting From Space Is Possible, but Not Secure

In space, your vote still matters

Key Takeaways

  • The American astronaut aboard the International Space Station plans to vote in this year’s presidential election.
  • One expert says that space voting is an example of the challenges of electronic ballots.
  • Astronaut Kate Rubins calls voting "an honor."
NASA astronaut Kate Rubins in front of the windows in the International Space Station’s cupola module during Expedition 49 in 2016.
NASA astronaut Kate Rubins in front of the windows in the International Space Station’s cupola module during Expedition 49 in 2016. NASA

Ballots are the subject of many controversies during this year’s presidential election, but how secure is voting from space?

While tensions rise over absentee voting during the coronavirus pandemic, International Space Station resident Kate Rubins will cast her ballot from orbit where she is working on a cardiovascular experiment and conducting research in the station’s Cold Atom Lab. However, electronic voting of the kind done aboard the ISS presents security challenges, one expert says. 

"Even if the ballot itself is secure, the operating system needs to be secure," Mark A. Herschberg, who did graduate work at MIT on secure voting systems, said in an email interview. "The hardware would need to be proven secure, and the supply chain would need to be secure, as well as the clerk's office network the computer is on. 

"This is why electronic voting is not secure. It’s not just creating software that is secure, but all the other layers such as the operating system and hardware need to be secure. History has shown us time and again these are not."

Herschberg argues that NASA’s orbital polling procedures are an example of the kind of security problems facing many current electronic voting systems. 

"Right now, we're talking about a handful of astronauts, and their votes aren't likely to swing an election if they are corrupted," he said. However, he points out, a security flaw could impact thousands of polling stations at once "and that could impact an election. Until we have much more secure hardware and operating systems we cannot have electronic voting." 

Houston, We Have a Ballot

Since most American astronauts live in Houston, Texas, law allows them to vote from space using an electronic ballot.

The "voting process starts a year before launch, when astronauts are able to select which elections (local/state/federal) that they want to participate in while in space," NASA officials wrote in a Tumblr post. "Then, six months before the election, astronauts are provided with a standard form: the 'Voter Registration and Absentee Ballot Request—Federal Post Card Application.'"

Mission Controllers send the ballot to the space station. The ballot is then sent to the county clerk for tabulation.

"Using a set of unique credentials sent to each of them by email, astronauts can access their ballots, cast their votes, and downlink them back down to Earth," the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum said. Astronauts list their address as "low-Earth orbit" when they fill out the ballots.

Carrying on the Tradition of Space Votes

The first astronaut to cast a vote in space was NASA’s David Wolf during his mission aboard the Russian Space Station Mir in 1997. The basic procedure for voting hasn’t changed although now ballots are sent to the International Space Station instead. This isn't Rubins' first time voting from space, either. She cast a vote in the presidential election four years ago while on a previous mission to the ISS. Her fellow astronaut, Shane Kimbrough, also filed his ballot in 2016.

STS-86 crewmember David Wolf, the first American to vote in space, relaxes in the Spacehab module while Space Shuttle Atlantis was docked to Mir (10/16/1997)
STS-86 crewmember David Wolf, the first American to vote in space, relaxes in the Spacehab module while Space Shuttle Atlantis was docked to Mir (10/16/1997). NASA 

NASA's procedure demonstrates the importance of voting, Israel Gaudette, the founder of Link Tracker Pro, said in an email interview. "There are a million reasons for you to vote and a million more to not," he added. "But for someone who truly knows the value of democracy and cares for the future generations, there isn’t a single logic behind not getting out and casting a vote."

Rubens called voting "critical to participate in our democracy," adding "we consider it an honor to be able to vote from space."

Whether from orbit or on the ground, getting to the polling booths may be more difficult in this unusual year. Astronaut Kate Rubins is showing that it’s still possible, no matter where you are.