MILLSFIELD, N.H. — Most motorists driving north on Route 26 in New Hampshire would roll through Millsfield without realizing it. The unincorporated township doesn’t have a stoplight, let alone a post office or grocery store. It has a single restaurant, a small beef farm and a forgotten history of casting the first votes in presidential primary elections.
In 2016, as development threatens to change this small community, Millsfield is returning to its political roots — maybe for the last time.
On Monday at midnight, about 15 of Millsfield’s 29 residents will gather at the Log Haven pub and cast some of the first votes in New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary. The town’s remaining registered voters will have voted absentee or certified they did not intend to cast a ballot at all to ensure the town complies with a rule mandating 100% voter accountably for midnight voting.
The polls will close a few minutes later, after every vote has been cast — six hours before polling places open in much of the state.
“It’s important for us to revisit history that has been forgotten by most people,” said Wayne Urso, the Millsfield election official who is spearheading the midnight vote.
Millsfield, about an hour south of the Canadian border, voted at midnight as early as 1952.
The tradition in Millsfield died out in the 1960s — no one is sure exactly when. Last year, Bill Gardner, New Hampshire’s secretary of State, asked residents if they wanted to revive the practice in honor of the 100th anniversary of the New Hampshire primary.
Urso, who has lived in Millsfield since 2001, convinced his neighbors to rekindle the tradition.
“It’s been lost for so many years,” said Sonja Sheldon, 77, whose bed and breakfast serves as Millsfield’s de-facto town hall. “It’s so exciting. It almost brings me to tears.”
In normal years the bed and breakfast serves as Millsfield’s polling place. Locals mark their ballots in the guest rooms and count them around the dinner table. Afterward, they share Sheldon’s homemade cookies.
But this year, the town decided to move the voting to Log Haven down the street. They need more room to handle the anticipated influx of media.
The townspeople had to move the handicapped parking sign, the only one in town, from the bed and breakfast’s parking lot to Log Haven to make the restaurant a legal voting site. Inside, the pub’s wooden beams are wrapped in red, white and blue streamers.
In addition to Millsfield and nearby Hart’s Location, the third — and most famous — midnight voting location in New Hampshire is Dixville Notch, just down the road. All three will host midnight voting Monday.
Midnight voting has been a New Hampshire election tradition since at least 1948, when Hart’s Location held the first midnight balloting to accommodate the busy schedules of the town’s railroad workers, Urso said.
Dixville Notch has been voting at midnight continuously since 1960. Neil Tillotson promoted the event to draw attention to The Balsams, his ski and wilderness resort. The event was a party, with food and music for the dozens of reporters who headed north along winding mountain roads.
In 2011 The Balsams closed, but Tom Tillotson, Neil’s son, kept the tradition alive in the 2012 primary. The next year Les Otten, a New England businessman and a former minority owner of the Boston Red Sox, purchased the site with a plan to redevelop it into the largest ski resort on the East Coast.
The expansion of The Balsams will bring an economic boost to this rural part of New Hampshire, Urso said. But with that development will come more people, and that will make it harder to ensure the 100% voter accountability required for midnight voting — which means Monday’s vote could mark the tradition’s end for these communities.
“The whole complexion of the area could change in such a way that it becomes impractical,” Urso said. “It becomes unwieldy.”
While Otten is hopeful that Dixville Notch will find ways to preserve midnight voting, Tillotson acknowledged that it might be the last time. “The good news would be the place is booming, the bad news is we wouldn’t be able to do this.”
Back in Millsfield, Roland Proulx, owner of Log Haven, says it’s worth bringing the tradition back — even if it’s only for one year.
“It’s important to revive and revisit our history,” he said. “It’ll be sad to see it go if it does.”