There’s no way Shane Kimbrough could get to his polling place in time to vote Thursday. Living 250 miles above the Earth makes for a pretty long commute.
Instead, Kimbrough – the sole American on the International Space Station this Election Day – cast his ballot via a special absentee ballot process established in the 1990s to help NASA astronauts “vote while they float.”
“It’s something that, you know, you might or might not expect it to mean a great deal. But when you’re so removed from your planet, small things do have a large impact,” astronaut David Wolf told NPR in 2008. He was the first space traveler to take advantage of this process in 1997, while he was living on the Mir space station operated by Russia.
A year earlier, one of Wolf’s predecessors on the space station, John Blaha, hadn’t been able to vote in the presidential election because his shuttle to the Mir left before absentee ballots were mailed out. He mentioned the problem to NASA official Susan Anderson, who reached out to legislator Mike Jackson, the state senator for the area of Texas that includes Johnson Space Center. They proposed that astronauts be able to file an encrypted electronic ballot.
That year, then-Gov. George W. Bush signed the bill into law, creating Rule 81.35 of the Texas Administrative Code: early voting from space.
“It’s a PDF of the ballot that we send to them,” Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart explained to the Atlantic in 2014. “It’s the same ballot than anyone would get by mail.”
The astronaut receives the password-protected document in an email, fills it out and sends it back to the county clerk, who copies their choices onto a standard ballot. Only the clerk and the astronaut will know how the astronaut voted.
“It’s kind of exciting when you open up your computer in the morning and you’ve got a message from outer space or something like that,” former Harris County clerk Mary Ann Daigle told NPR.
At a news conference before his launch to the ISS in October, Kimbrough told reporters that astronauts are “pretty much apolitical,” he said, according to the Associated Press. “And I’ll be glad to welcome the new president, whoever that is.”
NASA said that Kimbrough filed his absentee ballot sometime in the past few days. He’ll get his vote counted, just like millions of other Americans. The only drawback is that he won’t get a coveted “I voted sticker.”
Ah well. As Kimbrough himself said, it’s pretty good consolation to be able to tell people “I voted from space.”
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Sarah Kaplan