In space or on the battlefield, government personnel can take advantage of online voting aids

In space or on the battlefield, government personnel can take advantage of online voting aids

The government is offering digital help for military personnel and astronauts who will not be in their home precincts on Election Day.

Overseas troops who do not receive their regular state absentee ballots on time will be able to download an emergency online Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot from the Defense Department’s Federal Voting Assistance Program Web site. Although the ballots are available via the Web, completed forms must be printed out and mailed to cast votes.

For those residents who are way overseas—say, 230 miles straight up—the state of Texas has made provisions for online voting through NASA’s orbital e-mail system. Because so many astronauts live in the Houston area, the state enacted legislation in 1997 to let them vote from space.

“There has not been a great deal of opportunity to use this,” said Scott Curtis, NASA group leader for the operations planner for the International Space Station. “But now that we have a permanent presence on the ISS, there probably will be more opportunity for it.”

According to NASA, the first astronaut to cast a vote from space was David Wolf, who was aboard the Russian Mir Space Station in 1997. Leroy Chiao, the new commander aboard the International Space Station, is expected to become the first astronaut to cast an orbital vote in a presidential election.

Neither major presidential candidate has announced plans to visit the space station before Nov. 2.

The electronic astronaut ballot was created by the Galveston County Clerk’s Office and e-mailed to Chiao’s secure e-mail account at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. From there it is handled by mission control.

“We have Microsoft Outlook on board and on the ground,” Curtis said. “We do regular synch-ups with the astronauts two or three times a day.”

“It’s the standard communications link we use for the shuttle and the space station,” said Fisher Reynolds, Orbital Communications Adapter program manager.

OCA is the key for digital communications with space missions. Because of the long distances and transmission times, protocols such as TCP/IP tend to time out and do not work well in space environments. OCA, which is more tolerant of delay, provides an interface between the LANs at JSC and the ISS and the satellite that carries the transmissions.

Signals go from the OCA router at Mission Control in Houston to the ground station for the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System at White Sands, N.M. From there it is beamed over Ku band to the TDRSS satellite, which beams it to the receiver on the space station. The receiver sends it to the onboard OCA router, which is housed on a notebook computer. It is then passed to the space station LAN.

“The system is very secure,” Reynolds said. “It is pretty isolated from the outside world.”

Once the ballot hits the earthbound Internet for the last link to the clerk’s office, it depends on traditional security such as Secure Sockets Layer.

NASA said returning ISS crewmember Mike Fincke also will be voting absentee ballot, but that will be through a conventional ballot sent from Russia, where he will be on election day.

DOD’s emergency ballot is a strictly terrestrial product and can be used by expatriates covered by the Uniformed and Overseas Absentee Voting Act. It can be used only when a voter has applied for but has not received an absentee ballot from a home state. It is used for federal elections, including the presidential and congressional contests, although some states also allow the ballot for state and local races.

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