The Demise of Dixville Notch

And the uncertain future of an odd political tradition.

National Journal
Alex Seitz Wald
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Alex Seitz-Wald
June 18, 2014, 4 p.m.

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.

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