3 minutes, 17 votes, many grins

Tiny town revels in tradition of first U.S. balloting

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 began almost a half-century ago 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 unincorporated, 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."

The carnival atmosphere started early in the evening Monday 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 ticked toward midnight, nearly 100 people started to congregate in and around the room waiting for the voting to begin. They were 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; by far the largest segment, political junkies and relatives of candidates, like Mitt Romney's son Craig; even a white house candidate or two in person, including Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif.

Robert Feldstein, an Oakland, Calif., middle school teacher, flew in a group of more than a dozen political junkies just to experience the fever pitch of the primary. This was 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 was all taken in near the door by Andy Pearson, a Dixville Notch voter and the hotel's ski instructor. This was 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."

As the clock struck midnight, town monitor Rick Tillotson — son of the man who started the Dixville Notch tradition — signaled Donna Kaye Erwin, who drew the straw to be the first to vote.

Erwin, who voted for Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, was followed in quick order by the other 12 residents. Four others had sent absentee ballots. Less than three minutes later, it was 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 took less than five minutes to count and certify the results.

Then the crowd surged into another room, where the results were placed on a board and announced. There was mild applause when McCain got four votes and a New Year's Eve-style cheer when Sen. Barack Obama, D.-Ill., took the most on either side, seven. It was something of a surprise, since the town almost never votes Democrat.

The final tally, after Obama and McCain: two votes each for Democratic former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and Republican former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and one each for Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico and Republican former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

"I didn't have a feeling on how it was going to go," said Erwin, whose husband drew the 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.

The vote count means nothing in the grand scheme of the New Hampshire primary, let alone the country. Fox News' 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," he said, "But as a measure of what this is about, it's a wonderful way of seeing how people make a decision."

Said David Chalian, political director of ABC News: "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. It really represents the seriousness with which New Hampshire voters take this process. It's not some quirky tradition for them."