Can astronauts vote in space?

Can astronauts vote in space? If today you think, if you think about outer space, if you think about the International Space Station (ISS), about the astronauts on mission aboard the International Space Station (ISS), or even if you think about the future colonies on Mars, you are going to think, to wonder about the organisation of life up there: how do the astronauts eat? How do they drink? How do they answer to their primary needs? What are the raw materials that will be used and how to get them there? What are the missions of an astronaut? What is the person in outer space doing on a daily basis?

The human mind will jump from subject to subject, from idea to idea, from questioning to questioning, but rare is the mind which will question itself about democracy in outer space, and more precisely about voting in outer space. We may wonder: how does democracy continues, and how will it continue to be applied, to be exercised in outer space? And above all, can an astronaut on a mission in the International Space Station (ISS) vote for a national election?

Although this questioning around democracy, or at least around political organisation in outer space, is not the main focus of the public institutions, it will become so in a not too distant future, especially when we know that various States around the world have shown a will to return on the Moon, and even go to Mars, establishing colonies on it. With the arrival of several settlers, it will become more and more necessary to ask ourselves this question. The questioning can go even further if this time we think of a more distant future, and if we imagine the establishment of more human city-colonies in outer space: will the democratic system continue to be exercised or not? Should we keep our current system, present in most of the Western countries, or should we take this opportunity to improve the system and fill its gaps? In the meantime, the human presence is limited to the presence of people, astronauts on mission in the International Space Station (ISS). Even if the missions are relatively short, it is highly possible that a national election will take place while an astronaut is on mission in the “orbiting laboratory”. In this case, can the astronaut vote? And if so, what is the procedure?

Currently, only American astronauts can vote from outer space. Indeed, in 1997, the State of Texas passed a law which allows American astronauts to cast their ballots from outer space, from the International Space Station (ISS), and even if they were further out, like on Mars. A question arises: why only the State of Texas implemented such a law? Well for the really simple reason that most of the American astronauts are living in the State of Texas, they usually live near the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston. It is the rule 81.35 of the Texas Administrative Code that states that “A person who meets the eligibility requirements of a voter under the Texas Election Code, Chapter 101, but who will be on a space flight during the early voting period and on Election Day, may vote”. Furthermore, this rule explains that it is a privilege only afforded to residents of Texas. The first concrete application of this law was made the same year as its vote. In 1997, the first astronaut to vote from space was David Wolf, who was on a mission aboard the Russian Mir space station.

The topic rose after that an American astronaut, John E. Blaha, who went on a mission to the Russian Mir space station in September 1996, wasn’t able to vote in the presidential battle between Democrat Bill Clinton and Republican Bob Dole. The project of such a law was an idea of Texas State Senator Mike Jackson who heard this story. To him, voting is very important and in his opinion, a single vote can make a big difference in the result as he himself experienced it. Indeed, he won his election in 1989 by seven votes out of twenty-six thousand. The timing is actually quite important, 1997 is not a random date. Before this period, the longest missions lasted around fifteen days. But in 1995, American astronauts began to complete missions for nearly six months onboard of the Russian Mir space station. The question of voting therefore began to form in people’s minds. Thus the implementation of a law to allow astronauts to vote from outer space.

Now you might wonder: but how can an astronaut vote from outer space when there is no ballot, no ballot box and no assessors? Well NASA has created and implemented a special procedure to answer this question. Actually, for astronauts, the voting process starts early, almost a year before their launch. Astronauts need to see and select which elections (it can be a local, state or federal election) they want to participate in, while in outer space. Then, the next step takes place in outer space on the day of the election. At this time, the Houston County Clerk delivers the ballot to the Johnson Space Center’s Mission Control, which will send it to the International Space Station (ISS) electronically. The clerk’s office also sends a particular code for the astronaut in order to let them access their personal ballot. At the end, when they chose their candidate and vote, they send their ballot back to Mission Control which will again delivers it back to the county clerk office.

We can observe that the procedure is closely monitored on behalf of public authorities in order to preserve the democratic system. Thus, even if your environment is quite special, it is still a citizen’s duty which needs to be protected. We shall always implement laws and procedures to ensure that it will be preserved. In spite of this, American astronauts can also make the choice to vote before their launch, like astronaut Shane Kimbrough, who voted even before leaving the United States of America.

There is another civic duty which astronauts can do from space: to pay taxes. However, for evident reasons, they will be exempted from jury duty. Following several researches on the moral of astronauts during long missions, civic duties such as voting is quite important for astronaut’s morals in a way that it helps them stay connected to Earth. The first astronauts that performed long missions needed to keep a strong connection with Earth. It helps them keep the feeling that they are still participating in the life of Earth, and especially in the life of their nation.

For now, this right to vote from outer space is only for American astronauts living in Texas, which is a fairly limited criterion, even if the American-astronaut fleet is quite large. The European Space Agency (ESA) didn’t say much about this topic; for now, the only example we have of a European astronaut voting, is French spationaut Thomas Pesquet, who voted by proxy for the first round of the French presidential elections. As explained before, it is highly possible that in a mid-term future, human colonies will be establish on other planets, such as Mars, and it will become necessary to fill the legal vacuum. We will need to create and implement procedures and laws to allow the future astronauts to vote from outer space. We can also wonder if it will concern the vote for Earth elections or if we will create a sort of political organisation for these colonies, and therefore if it will concern the vote of their own representatives. Voting from outer space, and maybe soon voting in outer space, will become major themes of the organisation of the outer space conquest and of the organisation of life in outer space.