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Tiny Towns Continue Early Voting Tradition

In the first votes to be counted in a state presidential primary this year, Wesley Clark was expected to benefit from campaign visits to two of the state's smallest towns, where residents cast and count their votes in the early minutes of Election Day.

Clark was the only major Democratic candidate to visit Dixville Notch (search) and Hart's Location (search), where a few dozen residents make it a tradition to vote at midnight and announce to the world a few minutes later.

Officials and voters in both far northern towns said the retired general would likely be rewarded.

"I'm predicting a win for the general," said Michael Pearson, a Dixville Notch selectman.

There are no registered Democrats in Dixville Notch, population 33, and just five in Hart's Location, which has 39 residents. But state law allows independents to register with a party at the polling place and vote in its primary. Most of Dixville Notch's 16 independents and Hart's 14 were expected to vote in the Democratic primary.

Clark planned to finish his final day of campaigning at Dixville's Balsams hotel, the town's voting place.

Dixville was marking a milestone, the first presidential primary since town patriarch Neil Tillotson died two years ago at 102.

Tillotson was the moderator at Town Meeting and owner of the Balsams and an adjacent latex factory. From 1960 to 2000, he marked midnight on his wristwatch and cast the first vote.

This year the hour will be marked by Tillotson's son, Tom, the new moderator. The name of the first voter was to be drawn from a hat.

Though Dixville is better known, the early voting tradition began in Hart's Location, about 50 miles to the south. According to local lore, Hart's Location began the practice in 1948 because many residents worked for the railroad and wanted to vote before starting early shifts.

The town ended the practice in the mid-1960s when residents tired of all the attention from the news media, but resumed it in 1996.

"It's a point of pride that the tradition started here and that for the last three elections we've closed our polls ahead of Dixville Notch," said Selectman Mark Dindorf, a manager at the Notchland Inn where residents to go to vote.

While the inn is one of the town's only businesses, it does not dominate the way the Balsams dominates Dixville. Nearly all the voters in Dixville are Balsams employees or their families.

"We're a real town, not just a voting precinct," Dindorf said. "And we have real residents, not just hotel employees."

Dixville incorporated for the sole purpose of voting. Before that, its residents voted in neighboring towns, as residents of a handful of unincorporated North Country towns still do.

While about 50 news media people were expected at Dixville Notch, only a Japanese television crew and a few other reporters headed to Hart's Location. The Japanese crew has been in the area for weeks preparing a half-hour documentary on American democracy.

While many independents in each town vote for Democrats in the primaries, many return to the GOP in the general election. In the 2000 general election, Dixville Notch cast 21 votes for George Bush, five for Al Gore and one for Ralph Nader. Bush also won in Hart's Location, with 17 votes to Gore's 13.