DIXVILLE NOTCH, N.H. – The tiny town of Dixville Notch has saved its tradition of voting at the stroke of midnight from extinction in time for the first-in-the-nation primary just weeks away.
"We're certainly relieved," said Tom Tillotson, the town's election moderator. "On Feb. 10th, we'll be here and doing our thing."
Located in a remote part of northern New Hampshire, about 20 miles south of the Canadian border, Dixville Notch has been an icon of midnight voting since the 1960s. Through the years the media began to ritually swarm the town on election eves to watch the first tallies come in. The election was held in the Balsams Resort, a hotel in the center of the town. Presidential candidates from Ronald Reagan to John McCain made sure to make the trip up to voters at the Notch.
But the town's population fell below the minimum amount of people required to hold a vote there last year. That's when the New Hampshire Attorney General's (AG) Office told them they wouldn't be able to hold a vote.
The town's population shrunk to a just handful of people after the Balsams Resort closed in 2011. Then, in the 2016 election cycle, the New Hampshire AG's office investigated reports of voter fraud, finding that a few of the votes cast were from people who didn't technically didn't live there. Once another resident moved out, they were below the threshold -- five voters -- needed to hold their own election.
But earlier this month, Les Otten moved in just in the nick of time.
"Unbeknownst to me, they were down to four and it was handy that I was planning on coming back," Otten said. "So I guess I ended up being the fifth guy."
Otten is no stranger to Dixville Notch. A businessman involved in the ski industry, Otten is now working on a $186 million project to restore and reopen the resort that had once been the center of attention.
Now, Tillotson, his wife and his son, along with Otten and another sales agent working on the project, make up the whole of Dixville Notch's electorate. Otten said this time around, they reached out to the AG's office ahead of time to assure there won't be any problems.
“We continue to be in communication with the local officials to ensure that they meet the requirements to hold an election,” said Nicholas Chong Yen, head of the office's Election Law Unit.
Although the election is back on, Otten said that no candidates have made the trek up to see them this election cycle.
"The last person to vie for my vote was John Kasich and that was back in 2016," Otten said.
Although Dixville Notch gets all the media attention, two other locations in northern New Hampshire also hold midnight elections.
One is Hart’s Location, a small town in the White Mountains that started the early voting tradition in 1948 to accommodate railroad workers who had to be at work before normal voting hours. Hart’s Location suspended its midnight voting in 1964 and brought it back in 1996. The town of Millsfield, 12 miles south of Dixville Notch, had midnight voting as far back as 1952 but later stopped. It decided to revive the tradition in 2016.
While Hart's Location draws far less fanfare and national media coverage, voters there are just happy to promote full civic participation.
"It is a wonderful tradition no matter what happens," said New Hampshire State Rep. Ed Butler, who resides in Hart's Location. "We will kick their butt by getting our vote in first."
However, midnight elections are not reliable indicators of how a candidate will do nationally or even in the rest of the state, said Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire.
"It's not as if New Hampshire's holding its breath for these little towns with five, 10, 20 people to vote," Scala said. "It's this relic of retail politicking, this idea that New Hampshire voters meet candidates one at a time."
While that hasn't been the case this election in Dixville Notch, Tillotson, whose dad brought the national media to the mountains in the 1960s, said the nostalgic, underlying message is what's most important.
"Here's a town where a hundred percent of the people get out and vote," Tillotson said. "Just think what would happen to this country's political system if everybody voted."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.