Vote goes down easy, early in tiny town

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DIXVILLE NOTCH, N.H. -- Mix the drama of an election and democracy with a little of Christmas and Groundhog Day, and you've got the quadrennial spectacle that is the first-in-the-nation voting in this tiny hamlet.

Every four years since 1960, dozens of reporters and cameramen travel the four or so hours from the primary central of Manchester to the remote little town nestled in the woods near the Canadian border. They converge on the Balsams Resort Hotel, a Victorian-style grand hotel that serves as the site of the voting and where the residents live and work.

Like so much in the Granite State, which prides itself on fierce independence and a strict adherence to the idea of retail politics, there's something more than a little quaint about the ritual that that began in 1960 with the Balsams owner, the late Neal Tillotson. A hotel compound wouldn't normally be allowed to vote as a town -- the real Dixville is down the road a piece -- but because it's uncorporated, different rules apply.

And Dixville Notch gets to open and close its voting right around midnight because of an arcane law that says that a polling place doesn't have to remain open until evening if all voters are present.

"It's a gimmick," said Andy Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center and an expert on state politics. "Dixville Notch is essentially a hotel, that's all it is."

That doesn't mean that Smith doesn't think it's emblematic of New Hampshire.

"It's fun. It's part of the hoopla, like kissing babies and wearing silly hats," Smith said. "In New Hampshire, politics has a deep element of tradition, and the New Hampshire primary is special because politics is deeply rooted here back to the days of the town meeting."

Fox News correspondent Carl Cameron agrees.

"Dixville has always been first and always been wrong, and it's delightful," Cameron said before traveling up again this year. "They stay up until midnight ... and at 12:03, we know the results of the first in the first, and that is cool."

This time around, the carnival atmosphere starts early in the evening as the TV cameras arrive in the Ballot Room, a small room near the pool tables, where the ballot box lives and where tall, narrow voting booths have been set up for each of the 13 voters present. As the clock ticks toward midnight, nearly 100 people start to congregate in and around the room waiting for the voting to begin. They're a mixture of hotel employees who don't live in Dixville Notch, hotel guests here for a conference on private schools who didn't realize they would be caught up in a media whirlwind and by far the largest segment, political junkies and relatives of candidates like Mitt Romney's son Craig and even a candidate or two in person, like California Congressman and GOP candidate Duncan Hunter.

Robert Feldstein, an Oakland, Calif., middle school teacher, flew with a group of more than a dozen political junkies just to experience the fever pitch of the primary. This is his second election in Dixville Notch, and he wouldn't miss it for the world.

"That's part of what makes it that miniature capstone , with all the media covering, this tiny little thing for whatever strange reason is being magnified out," Feldstein said. "That's what gives it the stamp of importance."

The scene is all taken in near the door by Andy Pearson, a Dixville Notch voter and the hotel's ski instructor. He said that believe it or not, what looks like a crush of media is nothing compared to what it's been in years past. This is his fifth Notch vote.

"It's a privilege, but I've never been crazy about staying up until midnight," Pearson said. "But you do get the sense that your vote really counts because here, it really does." He won't say who he'll vote for but he allows that it's not a candidate with deep Washington connections as he says it's time for a change.

As the clock strikes midnight, town monitor Rick Tillotson -- son of the man who started the Dixville Notch tradition -- signals Donna Kaye Erwin who has drawn the straw to be the first to put her ballot card into the oversized box.

Erwin, who voted for McCain, is followed in quick order by the other 12 residents. Four others have sent absentee ballots. Just under three minutes later, its over, probably the quickest election this side of a third-world dictatorship and the only one ever broadcast live on Fox News, CNN and C-Span. It takes less than five minutes to count and certify the results.

Then the crowd surges into another room where the results are placed on a board and announced. There's mild applause when McCain gets four votes and a New Year's Eve-style cheer when Obama takes the most on either side, seven. It's something of a surprise, since the town almost never votes Democrat.

"I didn't have a feeling on how it was going to go," said Erwin, whose husband had drew the first straw to become the first voter in the nation in 2004.

Two votes for Obama came from Bob and Amber Mills, a young couple who both work at the hotel. Richard Mills said that even though Obama didn't come to Dixville Notch himself, he sent representatives who had been in the Clinton administration and that was impressive. Bob Mills also said he was impressed by Obama's health care plan.

"He's got a good level head on what he thinks should happen (in education)," said Amber Mills.

The vote count means nothing in the grand scheme of the New Hampshire primary, let alone the county. Fox News correspondent Carl Cameron said New Hampshire hasn't been "always first, always right" in a long time.

"As a news indicator of anything, it's absolutely nonsense but as a measure of what this is about, it's a wonderful way of seeing how people make a decision," Cameron said.

"It's not very predictive of who actually wins the primary, but it certainly gives us in the media a picture opportunity of people voting right after midnight," said David Chalian, political director of ABC News. "It really represents the seriousness that New Hampshire voters take this process. It's not some quirky tradition for them."
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