The vote heard ‘round the world

On Nov. 2, the voters of Dixville will head to the polls – just like everyone else. It is, however, an off-year election – election of the leader of the free world isn’t in question. The 21 voters will not gather at midnight in the stately ballot room at the Balsams Grand Hotel in full view of a sea of television cameras and journalists. Voters’ results will not be heralded all over the waking-world or, for that matter, be scrutinized, celebrated or even noticed.This year in quiet obscurity, Dixville – also known universally as Dixville Notch, the region for which the actual town of Dixville is located – will mark the 50th anniversary of its first-in-the-nation presidential voting status. A small makeshift voting station will be set up in the factory behind the Balsams. Throughout the day most people, but not every registered voter, will drift in and out and drop their ballots in the simple wooden ballot box.Since 1960, no voting precinct has garnered more attention than that of Dixville. Would-be presidents drive the length of the state to the mountain resort to rub elbows with a dozen or so voters. It’s safe to say that each candidate that prevails in this town is given a psychological, if not numerical lift, just as every loser quickly dismisses it as an insignificant anomaly. One thing is certain, though – no candidate goes to bed on election eve without knowing Dixville’s results and only a hermit could get through the next morning without hearing the news from this mountain hamlet.Current and former voters say all of the horse race-style hype is not important; the key is voter participation. For the moderator to close the polls, 100 percent of the registered voters need to have cast their ballots. One holdout could end the process.The Tillotson FactorDixville stands in the annals of political history because of a mixture of Yankee practicality, dead-pan pageantry, civic vitality and brilliant branding. More than anything it is a testament to its creator, Neil Tillotson, a famous entrepreneur, industrialist, centenarian and long known as the first voter. In his hotel, surrounded by his employees and family, this quintessential Yankee would peer at his ancient wristwatch and, at the stroke of midnight, the polls would open, and then minutes later he would start the voting by casting his ballot.To the typically cynical media, this moment became myth – symbolizing the best of flinty New England democracy.Barbara Tetreault, a veteran reporter with the Berlin Daily Sun, said, “If (a movie director) called central casting and said send me an old Yankee, you’d get Neil Tillotson.”From humble local beginnings, Tillotson saw Teddy Roosevelt, chased Pancho Villa with Sherman’s cavalry, pioneered rubber balloons, and returned home to revive a dying grand hotel and ruled over his empire until he died at 102. From his grave, his influence remains immense as his and his wife’s trust, which owns the Balsams and annually shells out millions to local causes in this beautiful and beleaguered region.Since New Hampshire’s first primary in 1952, several tiny North Country towns annually vied to be first, but by 1960, Hart’s Location seemed to have secured the title. So much so, that John Kennedy’s staff obsessed over the 12 voters. Each was sent an autographed photo of Kennedy and his staff’s canvass revealed that he and Richard Nixon had five votes each and two remained undecided. But the Kennedy campaign missed the boat; a month before the vote, a minor bill breezed through the Legislature giving the unincorporated town of Dixville the rights to organize as a town for the sole purpose of voting. The reason seemed purely practical to save the handful of residents a 50-mile one-way trip to the county seat in Lancaster.Lore has it that a newswire service photographer convinced Tillotson, who purchased the Balsams in 1954 at auction for $185,000, to vote at midnight and he’d take care of broadcasting the results. The previous arrangement was riddled with uncertainty and discomfort, but most significantly, Dixville had good, reliable phone service, which was needed to transfer information and photographs to distant news outlets.Still, it was easy to see the vast comforts that the Balsams could offer the traveling news media including warm, comfortable shelter at a world-class resort. Decades later, when Hart’s Location tried to regain its top spot, the media stuck with Dixville.”The media could be lured,” said Charles Jordan, a veteran newspaperman who now publishes the Colebrook Chronicle, “They knew where the buffet line was.”So just after the stroke of midnight on Nov. 8, 1960, Dixville stole the show by casting, tabulating and then announcing the results in just minutes. The local newspaper seemed more dazzled by the technology than the turnout. The reporter wrote of being “surprised to hear the results on the radio from New York” soon afterwards.The speed with which the votes were cast and tallied was attributed to the fact that, of the 10 ballots cast, all but one were straight Republican votes. Richard Nixon won, 9-0. In 1964, Dixville voted in its first state presidential primary contest and thereafter kicked off every presidential primary and general election since.Beginning of an eraIn the presidential primaries that followed, the Balsams began hosting receptions for candidates – regardless of standing.”If we were going to vote first,” said Stephen Barba, who oversaw much of these activities as the general manager of the Balsams for three decades, “we needed to meet with the candidates.”This was more complicated than it sounds because New Hampshire has a very low threshold for candidates to gain ballot access. This meant dozens of meetings with candidates, among whom were, as Jordan pointed out, “very fringe people.” One, he remembers “carrying a (large) cross and another being dressed like Uncle Sam.” Others, Barba said, were very earnest people who had a particular issue that inspired them to run and use the campaign as a way to promote their ideas.Meeting the national figures was interesting, but not without challenges. Bigwig candidates and their handlers often wanted to take over the event and wring any spontaneity out of the candidate by scripting every encounter.Barba recalls Ted Kennedy’s 1980 campaign wanted to have a rally-styled reception with banners and balloons, but that didn’t fit in, and Kennedy never came. In 1976, Gerald Ford’s brother had planned to come to watch the voting, but was discouraged by Tillotson.”Our feeling,” he explained at the time, “was that campaigning before the voting seemed wrong.”After the vote, Tillotson did telephone Thomas Ford to tell him the results – “You can tell your brother, ‘I don’t know what the last vote will be, but I know what the first one was.'”The key, said Barba, who now is an executive at Plymouth State University, was keeping control of the process.The hotel ran and paid for the receptions and the town the elections. Treating all candidates equally and ensuring the dignity of the process was always paramount.We “never took advantage of it to promote the hotel,” he said, “We never sold T-shirts or souvenirs” with first-in-the-nation printed on it, he said.But, still it’s hard to measure the vast, fawning media attention and immediate cash flow during election season, which generally falls during slow, shoulder seasons.”It’s very exciting,” Barba said, “and a lot of work.”During voting night, he would tend to all the details. The national media needed phone lines, space and information and camera-shy voters wanted to be shielded from the media onslaught.But Barba’s biggest worry was “everyone being there.” He said it became such a concern that “ultimately we ended up going to pick people up.”Political upsetsThings didn’t always go right, however. In the 1980 Republican presidential primary, Tom Tillotson, Neil’s eldest son, made a hand-counting error and had to change the vote tally that had been incorrectly written on a large chart in full view of the television cameras.Dixville voters rarely served as a bellwether predicting the ultimate election outcome. But that was not their purpose, said Michael Pearson, who grew up at the Balsams, where his father was an executive and voted there for several elections.”It felt more like the start of a race – a ribbon-cutting,” and he acknowledged, like the New Hampshire primary itself, “There was a little bit of a maverick streak.”While the Republican voters hold a substantial edge over both Democrats and Independents, they can be swayed away from the GOP.In 1968, Hubert Humphrey beat Richard Nixon, 8-4, and in 1992, Libertarian Andrew Marrou nearly beat George Bush. In 2008, Dixville embraced the surge of Barack Obama, who never visited the town, over John McCain, who came often.Tom Tillotson, who succeeded his father as Dixville’s town moderator, but not as the first voter – that honor is now decided by chance among all the voters – said the first-in-the-nation legacy is about voter turnout and the import role citizens play in deciding their own fate.It “symbolizes our democratic process,” he said.