Tuesday, November 6, 2012

America's First Precinct

The Ballot Room in the Balsams Resort Hotel in 2010
The Ballot Box
I always enjoy writing about the North Country of New Hampshire.  I have written lovingly of the time I have spent in Maine each summer, but when it really comes down to it, it is the rolling forested hills of Northern New Hampshire, its myriad lakes and streams, that are  true God’s Country for me. I would like to thank my friend Donna Jordan, the managing editor of the Colebrook Chronicle, the voice of the North Country of New Hampshire, who provided me with a running commentary of last night’s balloting in Dixville Notch.  Thanks, too, to Chronicle reporter/photographer Angie Wheeler for the photograph appearing at the end of this posting.  Now the rest of the story . . . .

“The Epicenter of America” - this is what the Granite Staters would have us believe about the great state of New Hampshire.  This could have been the case earlier this year when several prospective Republican presidential candidates were tripping over each other on the chicken dinner circuit in the weeks and days leading up to the first Presidential primary in February (the date remains  flexible to insure that it remains the nation’s first primary).  The eyes and ears of the country - even the world - were attuned to what this gaggle of candidates was promising to the sometime taciturn inhabitants of this small and relatively sparsely populated patch of New England.  Each candidate in turn told the local folks why he or she should be the next President of the United States.  Each hoped that by winning the New Hampshire primary he or she would become the heir apparent to the Republican nomination.  The Democrats didn’t have to fight over New Hampshire this time around having already decided to anoint President Obama for a second term.  The political obituary writers were already sharpening their quills.

Every four years the first Granite Staters, indeed the first Americans, to cast their primary and general election ballots are the small handful of registered voters in the  hamlet of Dixville Notch which is situated in the rooftree of New Hampshire just a few miles below the Canadian border.  They assemble in the waning hour of the day before the primary and general, and at the stroke of midnight they cast their ballots.  New Hampshire state law provides for the closing of a poll once all registered voters have cast their ballots.  The votes are tallied, the results posted, and everyone goes home to bed having done their civic duty. 

This tradition was begun in Dixville Notch during the 1960 general election when Richard Nixon won all nine votes cast.  And it continues to this day, having correctly predicted every Republican nominee since then.  The balloting has taken place in numerous locations; at the latex rubber products company found by Neil Tillotson, as well as at the adjacent Balsams resort hotel which Tillotson bought at auction in 1954.  It is Tillotson who is credited with creating the midnight voting tradition at Dixville Notch which was incorporated for the singular purpose of allowing local citizens to vote near home rather than travel dozens of miles to the polls.  In 1948, a neighboring community, tiny Hart’s Location, began its own midnight voting tradition which continued through the 1964 election.  It resumed this voting in 1996, but it is Dixville Notch, with fewer inhabitants than its neighbor, which completes its balloting so quickly and therefore continues to lay claim to “First in the Nation.”

In more recent years the local voting has been held in the wood-paneled Ballot Room in the Balsams Resort Hotel proper, a small room adorned with photographs of previous candidates, both winners and losers, and other election memorabilia. This past February midnight primary voting took place there despite the fact that the hotel had been sold by the Tillotson family last year and later closed for major renovations. There were nine registered voters, a lot fewer than previous years -  three Republicans, two Democrats and four undeclared voters (there are no “independent" voters in New Hampshire, only “undeclared.” There is a national  Independent Party, which is not recognized as an official party in New Hampshire). When the magic hour of midnight arrived, they cast their open primary votes in less than a minute and the polls closed.  Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman each won 2 votes .  Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and US Representative Ron Paul (R-Texas) each received 1 vote. Even thought there was no official Democratic primary this year, the three ballots were cast for President Barack Obama. 

Last night the voters of Dixville Notch reassembled to cast their ballots in the general election.  With most of the contents of the historic Ballot Room preserved and stored away until the hotel renovations are completed and the hotel reopened to the public, including a new Ballot Room, the now ten registered voters braved snow covered roads as they gathered shortly before midnight at the Balsams Wilderness Ski Area .  Voting booths, one for each voter, were set up for the balloting.  A few items from the old Ballot Room were on display to maintain some of its former ambiance.  The name of each voter was placed into a pot and names were pulled to determine the order in which each voter cast his or her ballot.

I sat in front of my TV here in Maryland watching CNN and awaiting a live feed from Dixville Notch while monitoring regular Facebook postings by my friend Donna Jordan, the managing editor of the Colebrook Chronicle, who was reporting from America’s first precinct along with fellow members of the Fourth Estate from all over the world.  Even Chinese television, and CBC from north of the border just 20 miles to the north, were there to tell the story of ten Granite Staters exercising their franchise as Americans. Donna reported that everyone was snacking on sandwiches, brownies, fruit and cheese platters, and drinking coffee and trying to grasp a little warmth from a couple of turbo-shot heat blasters brought in for the occasion.

While President Obama and Governor Romney were giving their final campaign speeches elsewhere, each of the Dixville Notch voters were in their individual booths awaiting the countdown to midnight.  In the final minutes all of the heaters were turned off so that folks could hear what was going on.  “All the media are wicked quiet,” Donna reported as the last minutes ticked off.  She had never seen so many camera phones and laptops in Dixville Notch.  Truly the eyes of the world were focused on this makeshift ballot room.

The midnight hour struck and there was a CNN reporter broadcasting live from Dixville Notch.  Each of the 10 voters left their voting booths and placed their paper ballots in a large wooden box.  In less than a minute the polls were closed, the ballots retrieved from the box and quickly counted, and the results for President and Vice President, Senate and the House of Representatives posted.  For the first time since 1960, it came down to a tie with five votes each cast for President Obama and Governor Romney.  For the record, nearby Hart’s Location reported its results after Dixville Notch.  There Obama received 23 votes to Romney’s 9 with one vote cast for Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson.  Prior to last night’s balloting, the voters of Dixville Notch had a 7-6 record of picking the eventual winner of the general election. It has historically voted 11-2 Republican although in the 2008 election, the vote was 2 to 1 in favor of Barack Obama over John McCain.  The results of this year’s general election are still to be tallied.

This morning I waited for one and one half hours to cast my vote.  I waited until 11am thinking the lines might lessen from earlier in the morning.  Such was not the case.  In fact, the line of voters was even longer when we left the polls. I must admit that I have never seen this many people at the polls for any election I have ever participated in, and I have voted in every election since 1970!  Standing in line, I thought how wonderful it would be to vote in Dixville Notch.  I also thought . . . . how wonderful it is that this many people have exercised their right to vote regardless of the wait involved.

2012 General Election at Dixville Notch [Angie Wheeler/Colebrook Chronicle]

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