For six decades, Americans have woken up on the morning of the New Hampshire presidential primary, turned on the news, and heard about Dixville Notch, the tiny hamlet where perhaps a dozen voters had cast paper ballots into a wooden box right at midnight, with the pomp of a long ago era.
In 1976, Jimmy Carter beat Birch Bayh there, 6 to 1. In 1980, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush tied for first in the Republican primary with 5 votes each. Last time around, Bernie Sanders got all 4 Democratic votes, while on the Republican side, John Kasich edged out Donald Trump, 3 votes to 2.
The results, announced soon after the balloting in a wood-paneled room, were hardly a bellwether. But the message was broader: In a faraway place, every single resident of a small village valued democracy so much they voted at the earliest possible moment.
Now, with the 2020 New Hampshire presidential primary less than 10 weeks away, it is increasingly likely that the Dixville Notch tradition is dead, victim of a shrinking population too small to meet the legal threshold of five residents to be a polling place.
“It is what it is,” said Tom Tillotson, one of four residents of Dixville Notch, the town moderator and son of the creator of the midnight voting concept in the unincorporated town. “This is obviously not what I wanted to see happen.”
The probable demise of the Dixville tradition comes as the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary is fading in other ways. The small house parties, face-to-face glad handing, and herculean efforts to secure endorsements from small-town officials have given way to national polls, cable-TV debates, and rock-star candidates who command arenas from day one.
The loss of Dixville would chip away at New Hampshire’s very identity. Around the country, around the world, if anyone has heard of New Hampshire, it is largely because of its presidential primary. If they have an image of what that looks like, it is probably Dixville Notch, where the international press capture images of hardened Yankees 20 miles from the Canadian border extolling democracy and their civic responsibility.
That decline has been gradual. The Balsams Grand Resort Hotel, which has hosted the vote since 1960, closed in October 2011. Voting continued at the shuttered property in 2012 and 2016. In the last presidential election, Democrat Hillary Clinton won with 4 votes, Donald Trump received 2, and Libertarian Gary Johnson got 1, while Mitt Romney received a write-in vote.
After the 2016 vote, the state attorney general’s office investigated possible voter fraud, and when some people who cast midnight ballots admitted they lived outside the hamlet, it put Dixville on notice.
Under New Hampshire law, a polling location needs at least five people to staff seven different positions overseeing an election. In January, the New Hampshire attorney general’s office notified Tillotson that state law requires a moderator, town clerk, ballot clerk, and at least two selectmen and supervisors of the voting checklist. At the time, the village reported it had five residents.
And now, Tillotson said, the count is down to four: Tillotson, his wife, their adult son — a sailor whom he says maintains his official residence at his parents’ house — and one other resident. He has attempted to lure a fifth to Dixville, but so far without success.
Dixville faces a deadline in late January, just ahead of the Feb. 11 primary, to show that it has five residents. If it doesn’t, the state will reassign Dixville voters to cast ballots in a neighboring area such as Millsfield, five minutes down the road — and which also casts ballots at midnight.
Wayne Urso, a Millsfield resident organizing the midnight voting, said Dixville residents were more than welcome to vote at midnight at the Log Haven Restaurant and Lounge in his community. He puts Millsfield’s voting count at fewer than 20.
The tradition of midnight voting didn’t begin in Dixville Notch. In fact, there is evidence it actually started in Millsfield. And, Urso argues that the entire idea of midnight voting was based on a promise Dixville didn’t keep. “When this whole thing started, the agreement was that presidential midnight voting would alternate between Dixville and Millsfield and, well, Dixville didn’t honor that agreement.”
But Dixville had the savvy and wherewithal to define the tradition.
Legend has it that ahead of the 1960 general election, Neil Tillotson, the inventor of the latex balloon, latex gloves, and the new owner of the Balsams hotel, hatched an idea with a photographer from a national wire service. If Dixville Notch held a midnight vote, the hotel had enough phone lines to immediately send the results and photographs before any other small town.
Midnight voting started with that 1960 general election and — four years later — became part of the state’s presidential primary tradition.
Then-Michigan governor George Romney — father of now-Senator Mitt Romney — announced his 1968 presidential campaign in Dixville and brought a 700-pound elephant named Popsicle to the event. (His wife rode it, briefly, in the hotel ballroom.) In 1980, then-Arkansas governor Bill Clinton visited the ballot room as a political tourist, a dozen years before being on the ballot himself.
When he was president and up for reelection, George H.W. Bush called Dixville voters on the night of balloting.
And by the time his son George W. Bush made the rounds of Dixville voters ahead of the 2000 presidential primary, he learned that rival John McCain had been there twice. (Bush won the primary by 2 votes.)
In the modern era, hundreds of reporters and a phalanx of television cameras from around the world have come to memorialize the vote. Under state law, balloting can be closed only after all eligible residents voted, so all the village’s residents must gather. About 10 minutes after midnight, primary ballots are counted and announced, written down on a board.
Following the 2016 general election, some five years after the hotel closed, the attorney general’s office began looking into those who were on the voter checklist. It found that no one who voted in Dixville also voted somewhere else, but did determine that some voters clearly didn’t live in the hamlet.
Today, the Balsams, a once grand resort on 11,000 acres of ski hills and golf courses nestled by a lake in the far northern tip of the state, has buildings where the roofs have fallen in. Items inside the hotel, from political memorabilia to toilets, have long since been auctioned off.
The current owner of the property, ski mogul Les Otten, has been trying to revive the resort. Through a spokesman, Otten said he would be interested in hosting another midnight vote there, should Dixville qualify.
Even if the Dixville tradition goes away, there will still be midnight voting in New Hampshire. Millsfield will do it. And Hart’s Location, some 80 miles to the south, will also hold a midnight vote at a local inn.
While Tom Tillotson and his family will have a place to vote, it won’t be the same.
“So much of politics these days are focus groups, metrics, and analytics — and it is all so deadly serious,” said Bill Dunlap, president of the New Hampshire Historical Society. “By contrast, the Dixville Notch thing was just kind of fun and whimsical and lighthearted. No campaign had any illusions that the vote there really mattered, but I think it lightened up the process a bit.
“If Dixville Notch is no longer,” he mused, “something is lost.”
James Pindell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.