In Dixville Notch, a race to stay ﬁrst in the nation
If a presidential candidate or an out-of-town journalist wants to make an appearance in Dixville Notch, N.H., it takes more than a little effort. It’s a 4½-hour drive from Logan International Airport in the best weather — and in presidential primary season, the weather is rarely good.
Yet for a half-century, politicians and reporters from across the globe have made the trip, late at night, up through the White Mountains and nearly to Canada, to capture a beloved first-in-the-nation spectacle: an entire town voting at one minute past midnight, setting the pace for the rest of the long day of voting up and down the state.
Whether that tradition continues in 2016 is now in question.
Dixville Notch is little more than the Balsams Grand Resort Hotel. The inn shut down in 2011. And while the new owner insists his enormous renovation project will be complete in time for the 2016 election, there is another tiny hamlet — population 23 — waiting in the wings, prepared to assume the midnight voting tradition.
Leslie B. Otten, a onetime minority partner in the Red Sox and a developer of ski resorts, has proposed a $100 million renovation project at the Balsams, hoping to upgrade the storied hotel into a year-round family resort of spectacular proportions.
He’s just a few permits away from shifting into high gear.
And while Otten is optimistic that everything will be ready in time for 2016, there are more than a few hurdles ahead.
For one, construction can’t begin until state environmental permits are in place. And in the state’s northernmost region, where “short construction season” is an understatement, getting things completed by primary election day 2016 is a challenge in and of itself, said Scott Tranchemontagne, project spokesman.
The rebirth of the Balsams will revive the North Country’s stagnant economy, said Tranchemontagne, creating up to 1,500 jobs at the resort and an additional 1,500 indirectly, through business creation and expansion around the resort.
Workers will need to break ground in April in order to finish all the outdoor construction before the threat of snow in the fall, he said.
But there are also legal and tangible challenges to maintaining the late-night voting. Even if the famous Balsams Dix House — where the midnight vote for decades traditionally took place — can be ready in time, Wayne Urso of neighboring Millsfield, sees other hurdles.
For starters, there are only a few registered voters left in Dixville Notch.
“The truth of the matter is that to have a legal election, you need a town clerk, a supervisor of the checklist, a selectman, or city council members,” said Urso, his town’s lone selectman. “Even if Dixville had voters ready to vote, my understanding is that, according to the rules and regulations, if they don’t have enough people to have all the required titles to hold an election, it can’t happen.”
Urso said the townspeople of Millsfield are ready to do their part, and even voted to revive their own midnight voting tradition in anticipation of the 2016 presidential primary.
New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner planted the idea last year.
“We were actually asked by Bill Gardner to get ready, with the Balsams closed and the uncertainty of it all, and with New Hampshire wanting to remain first in the nation for the primary,” Urso said. “He asked that we revisit our history and keep the midnight voting tradition alive, and we’ve agreed to do that.”
As Gardner explains it, he was on a tour of some of the state’s more remote precincts after stopping by the Balsams, which was a ghost town. He made his way to a bed and breakfast called Peace of Heaven in Millsfield, where Millsfield voters for decades have been casting ballots in one of the four bedrooms that double as voting booths.
Sonja Sheldon, who runs the B&B, served Gardner a huge plate of home-baked chocolate chip cookies and gave him a copy of a 1952 Time magazine article to read, chronicling how the town’s seven voters stayed up past bedtime on election night to cast their votes at the stroke of midnight.
It was news to him.
“When I was handed that Time magazine, it was like, ‘Wow. Just wow! Here’s a piece of New Hampshire history I was not aware of,’ ” said Gardner.
The tradition faded when Millsfield residents decided they’d rather get to bed at a decent hour, Gardner said. Plus, how do you compete with a grand resort hotel?
“I started telling them how 2016 will be the 100th anniversary of first New Hampshire presidential primary, and that maybe they might want to have people think about going back to what they did in 1952, by voting at midnight. It required adding Millsfield to the existing law allowing for midnight voting, which the Legislature did last year,” Gardner said. “They seem pretty excited.”
Urso confirmed that the entire town, which assembled in his living room just before Thanksgiving, is indeed excited. With about two dozen potential voters, they have already decided to move the voting from the B&B to the roomier Log Haven Restaurant and Lounge, allowing space for media and first-in-the-nation primary tourists.
“We’re not wildly political. We never get together regularly to talk politics. Let’s face it — the country is politically divided, about 50/50, and the last thing we want in a small town is squabbles because someone’s politics differs from yours,” Urso said. “We just do our civic duty. And while we don’t have all the amenities that the Balsams had, we’ll do our level best to make this thing work.”
What’s the point of the midnight vote? Mostly, it’s a festive event that breaks up the long, dark winter. Practically speaking, it allows election officials to carry out their duties quickly: The polls close as soon as 100 percent of voters have cast a ballot, and in Dixville, that has required just a few minutes. And while Dixville voters are always first, they aren’t always good predictors of statewide sentiment — just ask 2000 Dixville primary winner George W. Bush or 2008 Democratic primary winner Barack Obama. Both were bested statewide: Bush by John McCain, Obama by Hillary Rodham Clinton.
In fact, there is a third North Country community sanctioned for midnight voting as well: Hart’s Location. Its tradition predates Dixville’s but without a grand hotel as a backdrop, it has never received the same attention.
Of course, if Otten’s team can pull off its project in time, it’s possible that the late-night efforts of Millsfield and Hart’s Location voters will be overshadowed — once again — by the return of the Balsams.
There is no gray area, according to Tranchemontagne. Election night will double as a victory party for Otten, the people of Dixville Notch, and the return of the midnight voting tradition for the reborn Balsams, he said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story included an incorrect name of the Millsfield voting location.