Voting in Dixville: a notch above the rest
If not for the time, location, broadcast media, and onlookers in evening gowns and suits, the whole process would have seemed normal. Almost.
Quirky even for New Hampshire, the 26 residents of Dixville Notch come together every four years to cast the first ballots in their state's "First in the Nation" primary election. They don't go to the local elementary school-there isn't one-but instead descend, literally, upon the grand Balsams Resort Hotel, a slice of alpine aristocracy plopped down in the middle of nowhere. And the polls aren't open for the day. They're open for a single minute at midnight during which every resident must vote, or the whole production becomes meaningless.
One hundred eighteen twisting, turning miles from Bowdoin, Dixville Notch lies in the middle of the northern tip of New Hampshire, only 15 miles from Canada. The trip there from Bowdoin follows poorly-maintained state highways that slip through only a few small towns. The final minutes of the drive on Route 26 take one through the actual "notch," a precipitous cut between two craggy mountains, all culminating in a breathtakingly steep incline concurrent with the appearance of the Balsams in the valley below.
The resort complex is renowned for its luxurious accommodations, fine dining, and easy access to such outdoor pleasures as skiing, hiking, and tennis. The d‚cor reminds one of what it must have been like on the pre-iceberg Titanic. Old, heavy tables support antique lamps that illuminate portraits of people who in the early twentieth century managed to enjoy the Dixville Notch area before everyone else heard about the place. The atmosphere is definitely nostalgic, though a glance at the dining room menu confirms that it's not for lack of funding. It's supposed to be that way.
When we arrived, guests were dancing to the sounds of the (presumably) local band "Notch Effect" in the bar, and the elegance of the bathrooms was tempered by Far Side cartoons on the wall.
The Balsams's true claim to fame though, is a little room tucked away on the second floor of the hotel-the Ballot Room, the room where the first votes of the first primary election in the nation are cast. The walls of the Ballot Room are adorned with photographs and memorabilia from past elections, but Monday night everyone was focused on the upcoming contest, one of the most closely-watched in memory. Cameras from C-SPAN and the major networks' Manchester affiliates roved the premises. The ballroom adjacent to the Ballot Room served as a combination social space for voters and resort guests and nerve center for C-SPAN's live coverage of the vote. The Captain's Study, adjacent to the ballroom, had the famous white board on which the results of the vote are written within minutes of the ballots being cast.
After we arrived at the Balsams around 10:30, there was little to do except wait until the midnight vote. The crowd was a curious mixture of hotel guests, still in their suits and gowns from dinner, campaign staffers, media, curious political junkies, and, of course, the residents of Dixville Notch. Televisions set up in one of the lobbies showed C-SPAN, and each time the network cut to a live shot from the Captain's Study the crowd fell silent, as though watching it on TV were better than actually walking 20 feet to see it for themselves. For the young and the restless, the hotel's game room was adjacent to the Captain's Study, and at 11:00 two elderly women were still in the midst of a fiercely contested air hockey game.
Representatives of the candidates were there to do some last-minute stumping. Cam Kerry, a miniature version of his older brother except with less distinctive hair, spoke with voters and did a live shot with C-SPAN. Rebecca Lieberman, again a miniature though female adaptation of her father, sought voters with the Connecticut senator's same characteristic right fist pump.
Evidently Wes Clark's relatives had prior engagements that night, and at 11:40 the general-turned-candidate himself arrived at the Balsams with staff and still more media in tow. While we had difficulty picking out the actual Dixville Notch voters from among the crowd, Clark, either drawing on a candidate's instinct about these things or perhaps acting on a tip, quickly found the elusive citizens of Dixville and spoke with them individually before they entered the Ballot Room.
Granted, Clark was not the only candidate in attendance. It only costs $1000 to get on the primary ballot, and plenty of lesser-known presidential aspirants join the major candidates each election. Republican candidate Michael Collis, a resident of North Conway, attempted to woo two older women, unaware that they were just visiting the area and hence unable to vote. After noting that he received the coveted endorsement of the New England Patriots' cheerleading squad, he directed them to look for his name right under George W. Bush's.
If Dixville Notch is an example of democracy in action, it's democracy with a whole lot of frills attached. Beyond the attention the process gets, Dixville Notch voters add another unique dimension by holding a drawing from one of the hotel's antique ceramic vases to determine which Dixville Notch resident gets the honor of being the first voter of the first election in the first in the nation primary. This time it was Rick-no need for last names in such a small town-who got to go first. Along came TV interviews for the lucky one. When asked about Dixville Notch political gossip, he noted that, "Everyone keeps to themselves in who they're voting for."
Ironically, for all the first-in-the-nation-to-cast-ballots-in-the-Democratic-primary hype, the 26 residents are all either registered Republicans or Independent-there isn't one single registered Democrat. But, thanks to New Hampshire's "open primary," Independents can briefly register with a party of their choosing, vote, and then regain their independence by filling out another form.
Residents voted by paper ballot, and the "polls"-in this case, a small wooden box with a slit on top-opened at midnight and closed at 12:01. After voting, everyone who was in the Ballot Room rushed out into the Captain's Study in order to grab the best view of the big white board on which the results would be displayed.
From 12:01 on, the tension rose in the Captain's Study, helped by the rising temperature as more and more people crowded under the TV networks' bright lights. While town officials tallied the results in the Ballot Room, people outside wondered aloud who might have won. It was as though we were in St. Peter's Square, waiting for the smoke to change color indicating the election of a new pope.
Twelve minutes after the polls closed, at 12:13, we got our answer. Dixville Notch Town Clerk Tom Tollitson, a short, red-faced man with a brown jacket and bowtie, announced the results from the podium.
George W. Bush won the Republican primary with 11 votes. "No surprise there," Tollitson remarked. Few laughed.
"Receiving one vote each, Howard Dean and Joe Lieberman." There was some sporadic clapping. A heavy-set, bearded man beside us, sporting a yellow "Dean for America" winter hat and a purple "SEIU for Dean" shirt, flashed the always awkward near-smile of rejection.
"With two votes, John Edwards," Tollitson said as another man wrote in the number next to Edwards' name.
"The runner up, with three votes, John Kerry." By now, the Clark supporters in the room were struggling to contain their excitement.
"And the winner of the 2004 Dixville Notch primary with eight votes, Wesley Clark." The room erupted with applause and cheering, and it did not take long for General Clark to return to the Captain's Study for a short address. This being the tenth of all ten New Hampshire counties visited by the General that day, he sounded exhausted but sincere in his gratitude for the votes he received. After a few questions from reporters, he and his wife headed off to cries of "Make way, future first family coming through."
Sure, there are plenty of features that set the Dixville Notch election apart from any other polling place around the state and, indeed, the nation. But it's hard to write off the whole election-at-midnight ritual as mere novelty. Dixville Notch is representative of the New Hampshire primary in the sense that the politics practiced there is retail, not wholesale-candidates must meet and talk to the voters in order to earn their support.
Our first four stories in this series took us to campaign events for the major candidates in the state: a town hall meeting with John Edwards on the Hampton Falls village green, a forum with John Kerry at the Weirs Beach firehouse, a house party with Howard Dean in rural Swanzey Lake, and Veterans' Day with Wesley Clark at the Franklin VFW post. The atmospheres and politics at each event were different, but one thing was clear from all of them: voters in the Granite state learn about candidates by shaking their hands, not by changing the channel to CNN.
While only 22 delegates were up for grabs on Tuesday, the candidates will soon compete for shares far greater, like the 1,151 from the March 2nd states alone. They won't enjoy the luxury of traveling by caravan or bus around the forty-sixth largest state, but will rather be flying around the country everywhere from Phoenix to Charleston to Detroit. Candidates will attend rallies and fundraisers with thousands of people. But in this game the momentum has to start somewhere. And there's the real meaning of the New Hampshire primary: you can't impress a thousand people if you can't impress 26.
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