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'First In The Nation' Voting Site Under Scrutiny For Alleged Election Law Violations

Voting results are displayed on a whiteboard just after midnight on Nov. 8, 2016, in Dixville Notch, N.H., the first polling place in the country to vote since 1960.
Voting results are displayed on a whiteboard just after midnight on Nov. 8, 2016, in Dixville Notch, N.H., the first polling place in the country to vote since 1960.

The New Hampshire primary is tentatively scheduled for Feb. 11, 2020, which is only — or "still," depending on your tolerance for campaign coverage — about a year away.

And for the past half-century, one of the most recognizable symbols of the Granite State's early electoral contest has been Dixville Notch's midnight vote.

Since 1960, the citizens of this tiny hamlet about 20 miles south of the Canadian border have gathered at midnight to cast the first official ballots in the presidential race, while camera crews gather to cover a ritual that's viewed by many as democracy in its purest form. The tradition is so storied that it was once even part of plotline fodder on The West Wing.

But Dixville Notch has recently found itself facing a less flattering kind of spotlight: from the New Hampshire attorney general's office. State election investigators started scrutinizing its local voter checklist shortly after the 2016 presidential election, in response to complaints questioning whether everyone who was voting in Dixville Notch actually lived there.

Voters prepare to cast their ballots inside polling booths just after midnight on Nov. 6, 2012, in Dixville Notch, N.H.
Rogerio Barbosa / AFP/Getty Images
Voters prepare to cast their ballots inside polling booths just after midnight on Nov. 6, 2012, in Dixville Notch, N.H.

One of the complaints that triggered the state's investigation came from a woman who watched television coverage of Dixville Notch's famous tradition. She recognized one of the people voting in Dixville Notch because he lived in her hometown.

"The transparency of the media coverage is part of what led to the concerns that were raised with our office regarding Dixville Notch and whether there were irregularities with the 2016 elections," says New Hampshire Associate Attorney General Anne Edwards.

Once investigators started looking more closely, it didn't take long to pinpoint those irregularities — because Dixville Notch's voter lists aren't very long. Fewer than a dozen people voted in Dixville Notch in 2016.

Most of them, the state determined, probably should have voted somewhere else.

'Ghost town'

Dixville Notch isn't the only New Hampshire community that opens its polls for presidential elections at midnight. But it gets most of the press coverage.

That has meant longtime Dixville Notch voters like Peter Johnson, who has been casting a ballot there since the 1980s, have made cameos in all kinds of news stories on this quadrennial political tradition. Johnson, for example, has been quoted everywhere from CNN to The Sydney Morning Herald.

But all of those news stories left out one crucial detail: Johnson doesn't live in Dixville Notch. He used to, but he moved away when his property there got tied up in a contentious divorce case.

He never updated his voter registration, however, because he always planned to go back. The way he saw it, it didn't make any difference where he was casting his ballot for president — as long as he wasn't voting in more than one place.

"Does it make any difference when I vote for Donald Trump, whether I vote in Campton, N.H., or Newport, N.H., or Dixville Notch, N.H.?" Johnson said. "As far as I know, it doesn't make one damn bit of difference at all."

New Hampshire voting law allows someone who has taken a "temporary absence" from a community to continue voting in that place if they intend to return. But state officials say Johnson's case went beyond the boundaries of that statute, and they ordered him to stop voting in Dixville Notch unless he puts back down roots there.

The now-shuttered Balsams Grand Resort Hotel, originally opened as the Dix House just after the Civil War but bought and renamed by inventor and industrialist Henry S. Hale in 1895, is shown March 24, 2006, in Dixville Notch, N.H.
Joe Raedle / Getty Images
The now-shuttered Balsams Grand Resort Hotel, originally opened as the Dix House just after the Civil War but bought and renamed by inventor and industrialist Henry S. Hale in 1895, is shown March 24, 2006, in Dixville Notch, N.H.

Johnson isn't the only Dixville Notch voter who raised concern among state officials.

Investigators also questioned the eligibility of people who voted in Dixville Notch while living there part time to work on a project to reopen The Balsams Grand Resort Hotel, a shuttered hotel that once served as the lifeblood of the community and the backdrop for the midnight voting tradition. Some former employees of the Balsams, who were displaced when it closed down in 2011, also got warnings from the state for voting in Dixville Notch after moving elsewhere.

The man in charge of overseeing Dixville Notch's elections, Tom Tillotson, said all of the people singled out by state investigators had genuine connections to his community — and therefore, he had no regrets about allowing them to vote there.

"My god, when we have less than 50 percent of the people in this country voting, we should be doing everything to enfranchise and empower people to vote, not disenfranchise, which is what seems to be happening," Tillotson said. (New Hampshire's turnout in 2018 was 54.6 percent, slightly above the national average of 50.3 percent, according to the United States Elections Project.)

But looking ahead to 2020, Dixville Notch is facing an even more existential problem than questions about its residency standards: It's running out of people to run its elections. There were just five people left on the voter rolls last fall, but the state says Dixville Notch needs to fill seven positions to stay in compliance and only some of those roles can overlap.

Tillotson is optimistic that Dixville Notch can find a way to scrape together the roster it needs in time for next year's presidential elections. But he also knows the clock is ticking — and even he acknowledges, "it's getting to be a ghost town here."

Copyright 2020 New Hampshire Public Radio. To see more, visit New Hampshire Public Radio.