Dixville Notch Has Always Voted First. Could It Be The Last Time?
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
There are few traditions more closely associated with tomorrow's New Hampshire primary than the midnight vote in a place called Dixville Notch. As Casey McDermott of New Hampshire Public Radio reports, this tradition isn't always what it seems like on TV.
CASEY MCDERMOTT, BYLINE: For almost 50 years, the citizens of this tiny community close to the Canadian border have gathered at midnight on primary day to cast the first ballots in New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation contest. And for almost as long, Dixville Notch's midnight vote has fascinated the rest of the nation or at least the national media.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: In a picture postcard town just shy of the Canadian border...
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: A small quaint town in New Hampshire...
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: This is really a page out of Norman Rockwell.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: Nine voters - not a lot of chance of voter fraud.
MCDERMOTT: The midnight vote in this town was always a media-driven event. It started as a way to give the press something to report early on Election Day. And Dixville, long held up to the rest of the world as a symbol of democracy at its purest, has actually come under lots of scrutiny from state election investigators since 2016. Some of Dixville's voters, according to a state investigation, didn't actually live there. Some other election rules also weren't being followed. As Anne Edwards with the New Hampshire attorney general's office explained, the state was tipped off to the problems with Dixville's elections because of all of the press coverage.
ANNE EDWARDS: The transparency of the media coverage is part of what led to the concerns that were raised with our office regarding Dixville Notch and whether there were irregularities with the 2016 elections.
MCDERMOTT: Once the ineligible voters were removed from the rolls, it wasn't clear that Dixville would have enough people to legally hold its own election again in 2020. As Tom Tillotson, the son of the man who started Dixville's midnight voting tradition, said last year...
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TOM TILLOTSON: It's getting to be a ghost town here.
MCDERMOTT: The main business in town, The Balsams Resort, closed down about a decade ago and took most of Dixville's voters with it. The local economy is struggling big time, but Dixville's fortune changed when a developer who's trying to bring The Balsams Resort back to life declared that he would move back. Les Otten says he has a few homes in Maine and Massachusetts, but he decided to declare Dixville his residence for voting purposes so that the midnight vote could continue.
LES OTTEN: Midnight voting in Dixville to New Hampshire is like snow is to winter.
MCDERMOTT: Otten says his main goal is to make sure that Dixville continues to be a symbol of civic participation, but he acknowledges that keeping the midnight vote alive might also boost his years-long quest to reopen Dixville's shuttered resort.
OTTEN: I don't think you can sit there and say that, you know, there isn't part of me that hopes that the tradition of Dixville and the publicity of Dixville doesn't help the project.
MCDERMOTT: State officials say they're satisfied that Dixville has resolved the problems with its elections since 2016, but it's keeping a close eye just to be sure. While Dixville will be back in the spotlight for this primary, it's not the only place that votes at midnight. There's Hart's Location, and there's also Millsfield, which happens to be right next door to Dixville.
WAYNE URSO: For us in Millsfield, it's kind of humorous.
MCDERMOTT: Millsfield, N.H., is actually the birthplace of the midnight voting tradition. Theirs dates back way before Dixville's to 1936, when a 27-year-old woman named Genevieve Nadig dreamt it up. Wayne Urso is something of a self-appointed town historian.
URSO: Reporters have come to Millsfield and then go on to Dixville when the big story that's written is all about Dixville with Millsfield being a side note.
MCDERMOTT: While an outside PR company has been fielding media credentials and helping to orchestrate national news coverage of the midnight vote in Dixville, Urso and his neighbors will get together a few miles down the road at a local tavern, their designated polling place to cast their ballots at the stroke of midnight. They say the press is welcome to show up, too.
For NPR News, I'm Casey McDermott in Concord.
(SOUNDBITE OF SUFJAN STEVENS SONG, "COME ON! FEEL THE ILLINOISE! PART I: THE WORLD'S FIRST COLUMBIAN EXPOSITION PART II: CARL SANDBURG VISITS ME IN A DREAM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.