North Of The Notches, Midnight Voters Carry On The Primary Tradition

Feb 11, 2020

New Hampshire’s tradition of midnight voting was on display last night. In Dixville Notch, a crowd of reporters, photographers and TV cameras captured the moment when the community’s five registered voters cast their ballots just minutes past midnight. But just up the road, next door in Millsfield, twice as many voters gathered at midnight – with much less fanfare, but a lot of hometown pride.

Sixty-five voters scattered across three communities in Northern New Hampshire cast the first ballots of New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary, just after midnight Tuesday morning.

The (very) early returns on Tuesday offered a few surprises. Perhaps most unexpected, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who spent next to no time campaigning in New Hampshire and did not even file for the New Hampshire primary ballot, “won” Dixville Notch thanks to a handful of write-in votes.

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar led the overall midnight vote on the Democratic side with a whopping eight total, while incumbent President Donald Trump walked away handily with the initial Republican returns. Of course, the results only account for about 0.015 percent of the estimated 420,000 voters that state election officials are expecting at the polls on Tuesday.

The trio of towns – Hart’s Location, Dixville Notch and Millsfield – each adopted the tradition for different reasons.  Hart’s Location, the only true “town” among them, started voting before dawn to accommodate railroad workers. There, residents were nonchalant about the vote – in part because they had local town and school budgeting sessions taking up their attention in the hours leading up to midnight.

“We’ll be crowded. We’ll have fun, for our brief moment. We’ll shine for about 20 minutes, and then we’ll be done,” Hart’s Location town clerk and tax collector Katie Landry said Monday afternoon.

Dixville Notch, an unincorporated place, started holding its vote at midnight in 1960 to accommodate a political press corps eager for a convenient, feel-good story to run the day of the election – and as a result, attracted the lion’s share of the spotlight.

It wasn’t clear whether Dixville would be able to continue their tradition this year, amid both a dwindling population and looming questions about its adherence to state voting procedures. In the end, Dixville’s vote went on only after developer Les Otten, who is trying to reopen the shuttered Balsams Resort, opted to establish residency in Dixville in order to vote there.

Otten and the four other remaining residents in Dixville Notch – one of them his employee, the other three descendants of Neil Tillotson, who once owned the resort Otten is trying to revive – were joined for their vote by dozens of press, neighbors and curious spectators who came to watch.

Tom Tillotson, whose father organized Dixville’s inaugural midnight vote during the 1960 general election, said the stakes did seem higher this year – not just for Dixville, but for New Hampshire in general.

“In all the years that I’ve been doing this, I’ve never received so many emails and notices from [Secretary of State Bill] Gardner, from the attorney general’s office, from everybody, having nothing to do with the DIxville voter issues,” Tillotson said. “Everybody from the state, from the top down, working for the last year to make sure that the hundredth running of this race goes off smoothly.”

Tillotson said he’s never quite sure whether any given primary will mark the last time Dixville votes at midnight, but his aim was the same this year as it has been for all the others before it.

“There’s only five here this time, but there’s another dozen or so down the road, another fifty a little further down the road,” Tillotson said. “Hopefully that spurs a few other people to get out and vote [Tuesday]."

Just down that road, Millsfield was celebrating its newly unearthed heritage as the apparent birthplace of the midnight voting tradition, dreamt up in 1936 by a 27-year-old woman named Genevieve Nadig who was looking for a way to put her remote hamlet on the map. Though Millsfield's balloting came with decidedly less fanfare than Dixville’s.

In Millsfield, there were no satellite trucks, no public relations firms coordinating media credentials or facilitating interviews on-site. Eleven of its 22 voting-age residents gathered at The Log Haven, a local tavern, shortly before midnight. The remaining 11 residents voted by absentee ballot. One side of the pub was converted into a makeshift polling place; the other side was reserved for press and spectators. Only one journalist, from New Hampshire Public Radio, showed up.

For locals like Paula Sweatt, whose husband has roots in Millsfield dating back to its founding, it didn’t matter. She was just happy to send a message, however quiet, into the universe about her tiny but tight-knit community.

“We’re alive and vibrant,” Sweatt said. “We’re here. We may be small, but we are mighty.”