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The Demise of Dixville Notch

+(Mike McQuade)

The Demise of Dixville Notch

And the uncertain future of an odd political tradition.

By Alex Seitz-Wald

Turn off Route 26 in northern New Hampshire, follow a long driveway past a dried-up spring, and you arrive at the site of a massive, now-shuttered resort. Parts of the hotel have been torn down, and another section has collapsed in on itself. In place of the old parking lot is a deep gravel pit. Down a dirt track, a neat row of employee houses lie abandoned; the last fibers of a basketball net cling to a metal hoop.

This is more or less the entirety of the community of Dixville Notch, a place too small to be legally called a town. Dixville, as all political junkies know, is the hamlet that is famous for voting at 12:01 a.m. on the days of the New Hampshire primary and the general election. Over the years, candidates flocked here to try to increase their odds of winning a symbolic victory before the real voting began. "You get one family, and you're going to win Dixville Notch, and your name is going to be in the paper the next day when everyone goes to vote," says Jeff Woodburn, the former chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, who now represents the area in the state Senate. One candidate, Alexander Haig, even flew here in a helicopter right after declaring that he would run for president in 1987. "As Dixville goes, so goes America," he announced, according to the Associated Press report at the time.

 

But in 2011, the hotel—the sole place of employment in the town—shut down. With the 100th anniversary of the New Hampshire primary approaching in 2016, Dixville's tradition is suddenly in peril. And two other towns may soon take its peculiar place in American politics.

AFTER INVENTING THE latex glove and the party balloon, Neil Tillotson was looking for somewhere to retire with his fortune when he bought the Balsams Grand Resort Hotel at auction in 1954. The chemist turned hotelier worked to turn the location in New Hampshire's rugged North Country into a world-class resort. He thought being the first place to vote for president might help.

"You get one family, and you're going to win Dixville Notch, and your name is going to be in the paper the next day when everyone goes to vote."

He secured a special designation from the state that allowed Dixville, the unincorporated area where the hotel was located, to open its polls one minute after midnight on Election Day, and to close them as soon as it reached 100 percent turnout. For years, the press would flock to Dixville on election eve, with reporters almost always outnumbering actual voters.

From 1960 until his death in 2001, at the age of 102, Tillotson was arguably the earliest person to cast a ballot in every presidential primary and general election—a role he relished. (Ballots technically aren't used in the Iowa caucuses.) But after his death, the Balsams was eventually sold, and the new owners have not yet been able to redevelop the resort—or keep it open. Without jobs or a reason to stay, almost all of Dixville's residents have moved on. Just 10 people voted in Dixville in 2012. In a special election this past January, the only voters left were Tillotson's son and daughter-in-law.

 

That's where Millsfield, an unincorporated area 12 miles down the road from Dixville, comes in. The community actually started voting at midnight before Dixville did—Woodburn thinks Neil Tillotson got the idea from Millsfield—but the tradition fell by the wayside years ago. Now, having recently been granted permission by the state, residents are preparing to revive it.

"When you look at the actual number of votes cast in Dixville, for example, they're really in a way meaningless when they're all thrown into the total election results for the state of New Hampshire," says Wayne Urso, who, as Millsfield's selectman, is basically the town's whole government. "But it's a big media event, like Groundhog Day."

A man casts his ballot inside a polling station just after midnight on Nov. 6, 2012 in Dixville Notch, New Hampshire. (AFP/Getty Images)We're sitting in innkeeper Sonja Sheldon's living room, which may become the new center of the political universe for a few hours in the middle of the night in early 2016. "Being a bed-and-breakfast, I tell my guests, 'This is the town hall. Do you realize you're sleeping in a voting booth?' " she says. Voters can also fill out their ballots in the bathroom off the living room.

Residents of Millsfield—population 24 or 25; Urso and Sheldon couldn't remember if a neighbor had given birth to her baby yet—go out of their way to insist that they mean no disrespect to Dixville. Still, someone has to carry on the tradition, and New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner himself suggested during a visit this year that Millsfield pick up the baton. "Here's the honest-to-goodness situation with Dixville. They've had tradition on their side for many, many years. And we honor what they've been doing all of these years. But right now, with the Balsams hotel closed ... " Urso says, trailing off.

If reporters do flock to Millsfield in 2016, they'll encounter a different vibe than they did in Dixville. With its hotel ambiance, Dixville seemed like a Disneyland version of participatory democracy. Millsfield is arguably more authentic. "Millsfield is a real, organic community," says Woodburn, who represents both places in the state Senate. "They're not all drawn there for one particular employer."

But Millsfield wouldn't be the only town voting at midnight in 2016. It would have to compete with the only other place in the state that is allowed to vote that early. Hart's Location, in central New Hampshire, has a tradition of midnight voting that predates Dixville's, but it never received anywhere near the same kind of media attention. Dixville had "a walnut-lined voting room and space for satellite connections. They rolled it out and promoted it," says Ed Butler, who represents Hart's Location in the state House and owns the Notchland Inn, where voting occurred until residents built a stand-alone town hall a few years ago.

 

Hart's Location advertises itself as "New Hampshire's smallest town and first in the nation every four years." But with 33 voters, the community has often taken a few more minutes than Dixville to get every vote counted. And while their votes have attracted some reporters and even United Nations observers, Butler insists that his town isn't in it for attention.

Meanwhile, Dixville itself isn't necessarily done for. Les Otten, who has developed nine ski areas and owned part of the Red Sox, is partnering with the owners of the Balsams to redevelop the resort. He is hoping to have it up and running by 2016. A former Republican gubernatorial candidate in Maine, Otten loves the hotel's political tradition but can't make any promises, given the numerous hurdles. "There's a long way to go," he told me.

Tanner Tillotson, Neil's 26-year-old grandson, hopes that Dixville will continue to vote at midnight, and that the three towns will develop a "friendly rivalry" to see who can get to 100 percent turnout first. His current job sailing tall ships doesn't take him to northern New Hampshire much, but he recently re-registered to vote in his hometown. That's three voters and counting for Dixville Notch.

This article appears in the June 21, 2014 edition of National Journal Magazine as The Demise of Dixville Notch .

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