Voting early (if not often) in trio of midnight voting towns

By Tom Eastman

HART'S LOCATION — The tradition of midnight voting in some of New Hampshire's tiniest townships has been getting a lot of attention this 100th anniversary of the Granite State's first-in-the-nation presidential primary, and three towns are set to carry on that colorful custom come the stroke of midnight Feb. 9.

img044Florence Morey, shown in 1956, is credited with coming up with the idea of first-in-the-nation voting at Hart's Location. (AP FILE PHOTO)Yankee, the Boston Globe and Reuters have all carried stories on midnight voting in Hart's Location in Carroll County, and Dixville Notch and — new for this year — Millsfield, both in Coos County.

ABC and CBS News also are said to be planning stories leading up to the primary, as they have sent crews to interview residents of all three towns.

Hart's Location (currently 43 registered voters) has been holding midnight voting since 1952. The town started out with 7 a.m. first-in-the-nation voting in 1948, getting the results out to the world in minutes, given the small number of registered voters. But it switched to midnight voting four years later to give railroad workers a better chance to vote.

Dixville (currently eight registered voters) jumped on the midnight voting bandwagon, in the Balsams Grand Wilderness Hotel's Ballot Room, in 1960. As the Balsams is being redeveloped, midnight voting will take place this year at the Hale House next to the Dix House.

Millsfield (21 registered voters) rounds out the trio, giving the three townships the limelight early on Feb. 9.

As Hart's Location Board of Selectmen Chair Mark Dindorf notes, "For all of us, this is our moment in history to be the forerunners of the grand tradition that is the New Hampshire primary."

Until recently, few knew that Millsfield had ever held presidential primary midnight voting. But in 1952 it joined Hart's in that practice.

In fact, that factoid was so obscure, not even Secretary of State William Gardner knew about it.

Gardner said he learned about it when he and state Sen. Jeff Woodburn (D-Dalton) visited the tiny northern township in January 2014 during a special election held to fill the seat of the late Executive Councilor Raymond S. Burton.

"Back in 1977, Ray had asked me to accompany him on a series of election workshops, which we did together in his district, going to Berlin and Conway, among other towns. So, after Ray died, I thought it would be nice to do it again in his honor," Gardner said.

With Woodburn at the wheel, he and Gardner pulled into what looked like a house in Millsfield. "I didn't know why we were stopping (at this house), but Jeff told me, 'This is where they do the voting,'" said Gardner.

As he walked in, Gardner soon learned that the house was actually a bed-and-breakfast: A Place of Heaven. Sonja Sheldon, the innkeeper, showed Gardner around. "She showed me a copy of a Nov. 10, 1952, Time magazine article about their midnight voting — I was surprised, because even though I have studied our primary's history I had not known anything about Millsfield and its having done midnight voting in the past."

He said the words jumped off the pages of the vintage Time magazine.

It read:

"The seven voters of Millsfield, N.H. (pop. 16) stayed up late on election eve and marked their ballots just as the clock struck midnight. Everyone had gathered in the parlor of Mrs. Genevieve N. Annis' 125-year-old house well ahead of time and the votes were cast, in the light of kerosene lamps, amid a fine conspiratorial atmosphere. Mrs. Annis, the town clerk, collected and counted them quickly, recorded one absentee ballot, and, at 12:02 o'clock, proudly reported the nation's first election returns (eight votes for Eisenhower)."

The discovery prompted Gardner to urge townspeople to mark the primary's 100th by doing the midnight voting again.

On March 11, 2014, Millsfield voters unanimously agreed to Gardner's request.

In order for Millsfield to legally conduct its election at midnight, a bill had to be passed through the legislature and signed into law by the governor.

The Coos County Delegates pushed HB 1400 through the legislature, adding Millsfield to the list of where midnight voting would be permitted.

On July 22, 2014, Gov. Maggie Hassan signed HB 1400 into law.

To add to their understanding of the midnight voting process, Millsfield Selectman Wayne Urso and other  town voting officials — Paula Sweatt and Kathy Urso, supervisors of the checklist, and fellow Selectman Tom Claflin — visited Hart's Location Selectmen Chair Mark Dindorf and fellow Selectman Phil St. Hilaire last April.

"Hart's Location was very welcoming and helpful to us, and the citizens of Millsfield were very appreciative of their help, and presented Mark, and Mr. St. Hillaire with an engraved gavel as a token of our appreciation," Urso said.

"The Millsfield delegation came to the meeting in a spirit of collaboration, hoping to learn from our experience, and emphasized they were not trying to compete with us, or 'steal the limelight,'" said Dindorf, a manager at the Notchland Inn in Hart's Location.

"One thing we told the Millsfield representatives," he continued, "is that we wish more towns could muster 100 percent participation, which makes midnight voting possible because the polls have to remain open.

"So instead of viewing this as a competition with Dixville, or now Millsfield, we like to set an example for other towns. We wish every city or town would have the same participation."

A dry run mock election for Millsfield was held earlier this month at Log Haven Restaurant (Millsfield's polling place for the primary).

"The mock election went very well," said Urso, a former MIT Lincoln Laboratory computer research scientist. He has served as one of the town's three selectmen since the early 2000s.

He said for Millsfield, it's not only about voter participation — it's also about celebrating a bit of the town's history, referencing the Time  article from 1952.

"We are very glad that we undertook this project. It became very obvious to all of us in Millsfield that if election historians like Secretary Gardner are unaware of Millsfield's history in midnight voting, that it is very likely that most other New Hampshire residents, and residents from other areas are also unaware. The purpose for embarking on the project is to revisit your history."

But Millsfield not only voted at midnight in November 1952; it also voted at midnight with Hart's Location, Dixville, Waterville Valley and Ellsworth in the 1960 presidential election, as all five towns rushed to get the results of Kennedy-Nixon race out to the (mostly sleeping) world.

Proof of that is shown in a Nov. 8, 1960 UPI article, "5 'Early Bird' Towns Back Nixon, 49-8," a copy of which was saved in a scrapbook that was maintained by late Hart's Location town clerk Dot Clemons, and sharedby her son, Hart's Location lifelong resident, fire warden and former selectman Bill King.

"It's interesting to read that UPI clipping about the 1960 election and those three other towns being involved in midnight voting, as we had only known about us in Hart's, which had started in 1952, and Dixville, which began it in 1960," said Dindorf. "I suspect it would take a lot more research to see if they were also all doing it in the 1956 election."

Gardner added that host Fritz Wetherbee of WMUR-TV 9's "Chronicles" program told him that the town of Sharon also once did midnight voting. "There could even be more; it will take time to explore that."

With the planned redevelopment of the Balsams by ski mogul Les B. Otten, this could be Millsfield's only chance to join in on the race-to-get-out-the-election results, midnight fun — one of the requirements of midnight voting is that the polls have to remain open until 100 percent of the voters have participated: All registered voters have to vote in person or by absentee ballot, or if they choose not to vote, they must sign an affidavit saying so.

That point is not lost on Urso.

"When the Balsams is (re-developed), it is really unknown how many new voters will be added to not only the Dixville checklist but also the Millsfield and Colebrook checklists," he said. "There is not a whole lot of vacant residential housing in Dixville per se. But undoubtedly, if the Balsams is developed it will mean that more people will have to move into the area.

"I should note that if the population of Dixville or Millsfield ever exceeds 100 people, midnight voting for either area becomes impractical because of the requirement for careful coordination and 100 percent voter accountability. Presidential primaries are every four years. So a lot can happen between now and four years from now regarding the Balsams development."

RAILROADING PLAYED A ROLE

Early voting first started in Hart's Location in 1948, when the township was inhabited mostly by Maine Central Railroad workers and their families. It gave the workers a chance to vote, as most worked during the day and did not have time to vote.

As noted above, the polls opened that year at 7 a.m., and closed moments later, allowing Hart's to report its results first in the nation, according to late clerk Marion Varney's 1997 book, "Hart's Location in Crawford Notch — New Hampshire's Smallest Town."

Florence Morey of the Inn Unique came up with the idea for the early voting, according to late former town clerk Dot Clemons, who told this reporter for a February 2000 Mountain Ear article that the early voting was held at the old Willey House Station section house (burned by the Maine Central in 1988) or at the inn, now known as the Notchland.

"Mrs. Morey came up with the idea back in '48 with voting at 7 a.m. Midnight voting started in 1952," Clemons said then.

A Nov. 3, 1948, newspaper clipping heralded the results from the first early voting in 1948: "First U.S. Town Goes for Dewey: Hart's Location, N.H. Gives Republican 11 To Truman's Single Vote."
 
Four years later, a Feb. 26, 1952, Boston Globe article reported that voters cast three votes for Eisenhower and one for Truman, and four were undecided.

The article contained a photograph of John B. McCann, then 68, one of two Democrats in Hart's, smoking a pipe. "We folks seem to forget that we ain't just electing a president," McCann said, uttering wisdom that could still be of use to voters today. "We're choosing a feller to run the whole world."

Tired of all the media ruckus, residents voted to end the midnight practice after the 1964 election. But it was revived in 1996, led by the efforts of Notchland Inn innkeepers Les Schoof and Ed Butler, who bought the inn in 1993.

Voters discussed it at a March 1995 town meeting, according to Dindorf, who added, "The idea of bringing it back was enthusiastically received."

After it was revived, both midnight presidential primary and general election voting was held at the Notchland Inn in 1996, 2000 and 2004, but the voting was moved in 2008 to the town hall once the town obtained the former hostel building from the Appalachian Mountain Club's old Crawford House site, now home to the Highland Center.

"After 2004, accessibility standards were tightened, and Notchland was no longer in compliance; the town hall is handicap accessible; Notchland was not," Dindorf said.

He went on to explain that once everyone has voted and the polls are declared closed by moderator Schoof, the votes are tabulated and confirmed, and then he has the role of calling the results into The Associated Press in Concord.

Now a Democratic state representative, Butler said back in 2000 that the point is not to get the vote out first, even though that is always a fun exercise. The priority is to get the whole town behind the voting.

"As much as I'd like to say that Hart's Location's vote will predict the primary outcome overall," Butler said, "I don't think we can say that. But here everyone votes, and I wish more towns could say that."