Voting in Lawrence County just went into the thermosphere.
Through a collaborative effort at the county’s Department of Voter Services office and NASA, Astronaut Drew Morgan successfully voted in today’s election from aboard the International Space Station, orbiting some 250 miles above the Earth.
Ed Allison, who serves as director of Lawrence County’s Department of Voter Services, said he didn’t think anything out of the ordinary when he received Morgan’s Federal Post Card Application in the spring for an absentee ballot.
Until he saw the voting location.
“He had actually sent us a voter registration and absentee ballot request with all the pertinent data, his address,” Allison said. “We checked his address and he is a registered voter here in the county.
“As I kept reading it said where to sent the ballot to - it says ‘International Space Station, low Earth orbit.’ I said, ‘What?’ ”
Allison looked up the rookie astronaut’s voting information and found he possesses a valid Pennsylvania driver’s license, has a Neshannock Township address and is a registered voter in the county.
Then Allison thought he was getting strange phone calls.
“I started to get calls from NASA, and I was still somewhat skeptical,” Allison said of being unsure of the authenticity of the entire situation. “After the NASA contact sent me the first couple of emails with all of her credentials as well as naming Mr. Morgan and knowing he had been featured in the newspaper, I didn’t have any doubt anymore. I said, ‘We have to get this done.’ ”
Allison then pulled his team together, consisting of Rick DiBello, the county’s Director of IT who would handle setting up a secure email and password, and Tim Germani, the man responsible for creating the ballots.
DiBello created a fillable PDF file that when Morgan received it all he would have to do is click the circle next to the name of the person for whom he wanted to cast a vote.
“I thought, well, that is pretty cool,” DiBello said. “I’ve never done anything like that before. I’ve worked with those files before, but not for anything like that.”
Germani, on the other hand, thought it was one of the coolest things he has ever worked on in his career.
“I was very excited about it,” he said. “This is the future. Just to be a visionary, Elon Musk is saying he is going to be putting hundreds of people in space at a time. This is something that is going to happen in my children’s lifetime. We are going to vote in space. That is very, very cool — if you ask me.”
The process creating the fillable PDF ballot took some time, which Allison said he and his team wanted to get right.
“Once we had one we were happy with it, we proofed it,” Allison said. “We got the request — and I didn’t believe it at the time and they all laughed at me — but I got a call from NASA.”
Allison said the ballot was shipped in two separate emails — one containing the ballot and one with a secured password that only Morgan would possess in order for him to cast his vote.
“Astronaut Morgan acknowledged receipt,” Allison said. “Therefore, we expected a ballot back and we did get it on Oct. 10. Tim and Rick collaborated together. Rick went ahead and put the fillable PDF together, put the password with it and off it went.
“Astronaut Morgan got the ballot, voted it and sent it back. That part was seamless. No problem at all.”
The whole process took one month, Allison said. The voting crew based at the Lawrence County Courthouse sent the ballot on Sept. 10, and Morgan returned it, along with a photo, on Oct. 10.
Morgan included a brief message in his response with the ballot, along with a photo from his first space walk.
The message read, “Dear Mr. Allison: Thank you for facilitating my vote from on board the International Space Station. Cordially, Andrew R. Morgan, COL, US Army, US Segment Lead, International Space Station.”
Even as Election Day arrived, the three men responsible for creating the opportunity for an astronaut to vote while not being present on Earth are still in awe of their achievement.
“In the 11 years I have been here it is certainly unique,” Allison said. “I don’t know that it is going to happen again in the near future. But, obviously, technology advances, as Tim said. If space travel becomes an ordinary activity — yes, we will end up doing more of this. We will have to figure out how to do it in a better way. We got it done, but I am sure we can clean up the process.”
Allison still has the FPCA that Morgan sent him from Kazakhstan in May, but the ballot will be treated the same as the rest cast in the county.
“It is a secret ballot,” Allison said. “No one will ever know what it was. Because it looks different from the rest - you would know it is a fillable ballot. It is going to go in the box and it is going to be destroyed just like all the other ones will be destroyed in time in order to entitle him to that secrecy he is entitled to.
“However, I still have his FPCA. We can always put that under glass.”