In sweaters, knit hats, gloves and mittens, they came. They came in service of democracy and freedom; they came to boost tourism and media attention to worked-over New England towns that have seen better days. They came to exercise their God-given constitutional right to vote for a presidential candidate and, in theory, to be the “first” in the nation to do so, in a primary at least. They came in a dark, inevitably frozen winter evening. And they came at midnight, braving the beasts that roam the wilderness to make their marks on ballots — and leave their mark on history.
The results of New Hampshire midnight voting are in — and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, senator from Vermont, and Republican contender John Kasich, governor of Ohio, have won big, each taking two of three small Granite State districts that, combined, measured the opinions of 65 voters. Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, also a Democratic candidate, and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) each logged a victory as well. All told, Sanders won the support of 17 voters and Clinton got nine. On the Republican side, Cruz, Kasich and Donald Trump each had nine votes.
“We’re a pretty small town in an out-of-the-way place in mountains, and live fairly quiet lives most of the time,” Mark Dindorf, a selectman from Hart’s Location, said in a telephone interview shortly after midnight. “It’s interesting that we attract this degree of attention every four years.”
Though Dixville Notch, an unincorporated town about 20 miles from the Canadian border, gets more media play, Dindorf said Hart’s Location was the first New Hampshire town to experiment with “first in the nation” status, reporting the results of the 1948 primary as early as 7 a.m. Just after midnight Tuesday, Sanders defeated Clinton there 12-7, and Kasich bested Trump 5-4.
For Hart’s Location, a town of less than 50 people, the glory was fleeting.
“We’ll soon drift back into relative obscurity,” Dindorf said.
Meanwhile, in Dixville Notch, a place with an even smaller population, live CNN coverage documented Sanders’s thrashing of Clinton, 4-0. Kasich edged out Trump, 3-2. Vote totals were written with Sharpies on poster board.
“This is an example of American democracy where 100 percent of the voters come out and vote,” Tom Tillotson, the 71-year-old town moderator of the event for decades, told the network. “It’s also a part of a primary process where it’s sort of an endangered species where the candidates actually go out and talk to the voters, and anything we can do to keep that alive helps our political process.” (Kasich was the lone presidential candidate to visit Dixville Notch.)
And, in Millsfield — a town of about 25 people that is reviving its midnight-voting tradition after an apparent decades-long hiatus and a battle with Dixville Notch over bragging rights — Clinton beat Sanders, 2-1. Cruz ruled the Republican field with nine votes; runner-up Trump got only three.
“It went very smoothly,” Roland Proulx — selectman and owner of the Log Haven Restaurant and Lounge, which hosted the voting — said in a telephone interview. “We were able to conduct the election in six minutes’ time. And it took about that same amount of time to count the votes. The results were up at 12:12. And I proceeded to scan the info and send it out to various news media.” He added: “People have come from near and far who just like to witness the tradition. It’s fun to have that energy here as well.”
Sadly for the winners — and happily for the losers — coming in first with a few scores of voters means nothing in a state of roughly 1.3 million people. Dixville Notch is not even great at predicting Democratic nominees; its record on Republican nominees is better, despite the occasional tie. Still, some candidates were willing to squeeze this victory, however minor, for whatever momentum it was worth.
Midnight voting, the theory goes, means a lot more for the towns that embrace it than for the candidates they embrace. In this economically depressed corner of the United States, even unincorporated areas with rising unemployment rates and declining populations get to hog the national spotlight, if only for a few minutes at midnight every four years.
“It would be great for the area, and maybe not bad for business,” Proulx told The Washington Post’s Ben Terris last year.
This post has been updated.