What It's Like to Vote for President ... From Space

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"The best part of voting from the ISS," per astronaut Leroy Chiao? "No lines!"

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Chiao, Expedition 10 mission commander, gives a "thumbs up" on the way to the launch pad in Kazakhstan on October 13, 2004. (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Leroy Chiao holds a special distinction: Not only did the American astronaut fly on three shuttle flights and serve as the commander of the tenth expedition to the International Space Station; he is also the first person ever to vote for president from space. 

Chiao cast his ballot from the International Space Station during the 2004 campaign. And that makes him not just the first person to vote for president from zero gravity, but also one of only a handful of people ever to vote from beyond Earth's borders. In 1997, David Wolf became the first person to cast an absentee ballot from space; he voted in a Texas municipal election from the Mir space station. In 2008, Michael Fincke and Gregory Chamitoff used electronic ballots to vote in both local and national elections. As for yesterday's election, the two Americans aboard the ISS for the 2012 cycle -- Suni Williams and Kevin Ford -- took care of voting before they launched: They made their choices via terrestrial absentee ballot while they were stationed in Russia.

Chiao and his fellow space-voters benefitted from a bill passed in 1997 by Texas legislators, which established a procedure for astronauts -- most of whom reside in Houston -- to vote from space. (The bill was signed by then-governor George W. Bush.) The system uses the same email-based procedure employed by U.S. residents who live overseas at the time of an election. In Chiao's case, an electronic ballot, generated by the Galveston County Clerk's office, was emailed to his secure account at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Mission Control then transferred that email to the space station, and to Chiao within it, using a high-speed modem via satellite -- the same way astronauts receive all their emails while they're aboard the ISS.

From there, Chiao cast his vote electronically. And he used the same secure email connection to send his ballot back to Earth.

As Chiao told me in an email, he sent his ballot directly to the appropriate official at the county clerk's office. And "that official had the password and recorded my ballot. So, there is one person who knows how I voted in that election."

But the whole exercise, he makes clear, was worth it -- and, as he told me, "I appreciated all who made it possible to exercise my right, even though I was in orbit." As Chiao explained at the time: "Voting is each citizen's most basic yet most powerful tool for participating in America's cherished right to choose its leaders."

So what did it feel like to exercise that right from outside of Earth? Even in an environment as pragmatic as a terrestrial polling place, after all, there's something powerful in casting a vote -- whether the casting is accomplished through a pulled lever or a punched card or a touched screen. You're communing with your country and your history. You're making a statement about who you are and who you want to become. What's it like to experience that participation so far from, and yet so close to, home?

In a word: awesome. "It felt good to vote from space," Chiao says, "to be an example of how one could exercise that right even from 250 miles up!"

And there's one other benefit to voting from zero gravity, Chiao points out -- one that, given the lag times terrestrial voters so often experience, is a big one. "The best part of voting from the ISS?" he says. "No lines!"

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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