HART’S LOCATION, N.H. (Reuters) - At midnight on a yet-to-be chosen Tuesday early next year, the roughly 40 residents of New Hampshire’s smallest town will pack into a small log building off the main road to cast some of the first votes in the race for the White House.
Hart’s Location is one of three tiny communities nestled in the White Mountains where people cast the first votes in the first U.S. presidential nominating primary every four years.
Midnight voting is one of the quirkier traditions of New Hampshire’s 100-year-old primary, and not a terribly accurate gauge of which candidates will win their parties’ nominations.
The winners of the statewide Republican and Democratic primaries have gone on to clinch the nominations in 11 of 14 races, excluding challenges to an incumbent president, over the past four decades. The success rate is just three out of seven for the top vote-getters in Hart’s Location and nine out of 14 in Dixville Notch, near the Canadian border.
But for the residents of these flinty towns, the point is turnout.
State law allows towns, or unincorporated communities like Dixville Notch and Millsfield, to open their polls at midnight and close them shortly after only if they can prove that everyone who wanted to vote was able to.
“The relevancy is 100 percent participation, and I challenge any town in the nation to match that,” said Mark Dindorf, who chairs the Hart’s Location Board of Selectmen. “I wish more towns would, wish more towns could, vote in this way because the more people who get out and participate, the truer our democracy is.”
Turnout in United States has been dropping for decades, with just 57.5 percent of voters going to the polls in 2012, according to the Washington think tank Bipartisan Policy Center.
To Wendy Schiller, who chairs Brown University’s political science department, the turnout illustrates the value of the midnight voting tradition.
“It’s the foundation of democracy,” Schiller said. “Being able to vote at midnight, being able to be the first people voting for a new president, I think that still represents the ideal version of democracy.”
New Hampshire law charges the secretary of state with guarding the primary’s first position, shortly after the Iowa caucuses. Historically, that official delays setting the date until it is clear no other states will try to squeeze in ahead.
While that does not seem to be an issue next year, the primary has long had its critics, who say the state’s population of just 1.3 million people, 94 percent of whom are white, does not represent the nation.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus last month told the National Journal he believed there should be no “sacred cows” when it comes to determining the 2020 election schedule.
“I don’t think anyone should get too comfortable,” Priebus said.
Prominent Democrats have also criticized New Hampshire.
“I was always terribly upset about how we were choosing our presidents,” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada told the Washington Post this month. “You go to New Hampshire. There are not any minorities there. Nobody lives there.”
That sort of criticism clearly upsets Les Otten, owner of the Balsams Resort. Currently closed for renovations, the Dixville Notch hotel has hosted the state’s longest-running midnight vote since 1960.
“To say the vote of any American is irrelevant is the epitome of hypocrisy,” said Otten, who along with several of his employees and friends plans to vote on the property at midnight on primary night in 2016.
Dixville Notch’s midnight vote, a tradition started by a previous owner of the Balsams, has drawn large crowds of reporters to the resort.
This has prompted Millsfield, a community of some two dozen people just to the south, to follow suit.
Millsfield voters went to midnight polls as early as 1952, said Selectman Wayne Urso. They broke the tradition by the 1960s but are reviving it for 2016.
“Millsfield was doing it years before Dixville was, and we discovered that nobody knows that,” Urso said.
Like his counterparts at Dixville Notch and in Hart’s Location, Urso insisted the communities were not in a race or a competition for attention. But he was not above taking a dig at Dixville Notch, which has few residents while the Balsams is closed.
“Millsfield has a population and always has had a population,” he said.
Otten waved off the critique, saying Dixville Notch’s population has always been fluid.
Andy Pearson, 46, grew up in Dixville Notch and recalls meeting Ronald Reagan in 1975, during his first campaign for the White House.
Having recently moved back to maintain the resort’s golf course, he said he looked forward to voting at midnight.
“When you vote in such small numbers and you see nine or 15 votes up there,” he said, “you see that your vote counts.”
Reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn