Dixville Notch keeps its historic place for the New Hampshire primary

After a loss of residents put its traditional role at risk, Dixville Notch will once again be among the first locations in New Hampshire to cast votes.

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By Amanda Golden and Julia Jester

DIXVILLE NOTCH, N.H. — After months of suspense and uncertainty, the first-in-the-nation midnight voting tradition in Dixville Notch will continue for the 2020 primary.

"We're thankful that it is," Tom Tillotson, one of the remaining residents of Dixville Notch and son of Neil Tillotson, the orchestrator behind the town's midnight voting tradition, told NBC News. "Even when we started, we had nine voters. Now we're down to five, and this is the smallest we've ever gotten."

The midnight vote has captured international media attention since 1960, allowing news outlets to report the first "results" of the primary cycle from the famed Balsams Resort after the poll closed once every resident had cast a ballot.

But it almost didn't happen this year, after Dixville Notch nearly missed the minimum threshold for residents of voting eligibility to be deemed a township.

After the 2016 election, the state attorney general scrutinized the Dixville Notch voter checklist amid concern that not all of its voters were residents of the town. Election officials mandated that the town must have five residents to fill the state-required positions to oversee an election.

Dixville Notch resident Tom Tillotson questions Republican John Kasich, then the governor of Ohio, during Kasich's presidential candidacy at a town hall meeting in January 2016.Colebrook Chronicle

The town just secured its fifth official resident — Leslie "Les" Otten, who moved back to Dixville Notch ahead of the primary to fill the vacant position needed to oversee the midnight vote.

"Consequently, you have confirmed that Dixville Notch will have the required election officials necessary to hold the Presidential Primary Election on February 11," Assistant Attorney General Nick Chong Yen wrote in a letter to Tillotson on Jan. 21 confirming Otten's voter registration and appointment.

In addition to Tillotson and Otten, the other residents are Tillotson's wife and son, Deborah and Tanner, as well as Joe Casey, a caretaker and employee of the property.

"I've lived within 45 miles of this spot since 1972," Otten said. "I did vote here in 2016. It was important for me to be for making the commitment to be here."

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The midnight vote isn't an indicator of how the primary will play out, nor of how the entire state will vote in the primary or the general election. But the residents here hold steadfast to their tradition and cite the practice as part of the retail nature of the New Hampshire politics tradition.

"It's kind of like the starting gun for the voting process for picking our presidents," Tillotson said. "Until the last election, no one became president without winning their party's primary vote in Dixville. Trump did not win the vote here in Dixville, so we broke that tradition in 2016. Of course, he broke a lot of traditions in '16."

Although it is most famous for it, Dixville did not invent the midnight vote. Millsfield, a neighboring town with about 20 residents, was the original home of midnight voting in New Hampshire starting in 1936. Nearby Hart's Location also holds a midnight vote.

"The more the merrier," Tillotson said. "If there were 10 other little towns that could do it, that would be wonderful."

The midnight voting tradition touts a 100 percent voter participation record — in fact, it is required.

"One of the most unique things about this is that 100 percent of the people of the town have to vote," Otten said. "Imagine the results that we would have, imagine how our country would be governed, if all of us participated."

Tillotson hopes the full participation of midnight voters helps improve the democratic process.

"This country continues to have a problem with voter turnout — maybe it'll be higher this year because things are so divided, but who knows?" Tillotson said. "If that encourages a few extra thousand people to go out and vote, then it's been worthwhile."

Voters cast ballots in Dixville Notch, New Hampshire, just after midnight on Nov. 6, 2012.Rogeiro Barbosa / AFP - Getty Images file

The midnight voting doesn't just bring swarms of onlookers and media to witness the event. It can also attract presidential candidates — although no major Democratic 2020 candidates have ventured up north to Dixville Notch this cycle.

"Both Bushes campaigned directly here," Tillotson said. "John McCain came here a lot. He got to be quite good friends with my dad, spent a fair amount of time with him. This is how the presidential process used to be, where candidates really were candidates. They came out, they shook hands, and now it's all been replaced by TV pretty much."

There is now a massive revitalization and renovation effort for the Balsams Resort and property, the original home of midnight voting in Dixville, which fell into disrepair. Otten, who is taking on a major role in the project, says he hopes to make a year-round destination from what primarily used to be a summer resort.

Looking beyond the coming primary, Tillotson hopes the midnight voting tradition will last in a community that has withstood a great deal.

"This is a great community here," Tillotson said. "This community has seen the loss of the paper companies, the furniture companies. I used to employ 500 people here. That business is gone. The hotel closing — there was another 400 people employed here in the hotel. Yet, this community has survived."