Many of us still vote the same way our great-grandparents did: We show up at the neighborhood polling station Election Day. We depart with an “I Voted” sticker and a sense of having participated in a sacred ritual of democracy.
But this centuries-old tradition soon may go the way of the horse and buggy. And as our voting methods evolve, we confront a basic question: How does the physical act of casting a ballot impact our democracy?
Today, more and more people aren’t even leaving their houses to vote. They are doing so early by mail and might soon have the options of faxing, emailing or even texting their votes. In fact, two of those options – email and fax — were made available on Nov. 6 to New Jersey residents impacted by Hurricane Sandy.
But is this good for democracy? Doesn’t voting together help create a greater sense of community? Look at the tiny, unincorporated town of Dixville Notch, New Hampshire. The voters in that small hamlet gather every election at midnight to cast their votes, which are immediately tallied. The results are the first in the nation. This year President Barack Obama and his challenger Mitt Romney tied with five votes apiece, the first time the voters deadlocked.
Will such quirky moments be history if electronic and early voting becomes the norm? Indeed, today Election Day is a wildly diverse experience depending on where you live. In San Diego, for instance, peoples’ home garages are among those places that act as polling stations.
Elsewhere, people vote in schools, libraries, wedding chapels, churches, laundromats and Mexican restaurants. A polling place can be pretty much anywhere, as long as it well lit and doesn’t serve booze, according to this story.
Some of polling places may actually impact how we vote. For instance, if a voter happens to vote at a school, he or she is more likely to vote for initiatives that improve schools, according to Stanford Graduate School of Business researchers.
But some critics argue that the current system is outdated and actually discourages voting because it’s unable to handle the growing electorate. Lines are long. At some polling stations, voters wait hours. They get angry and frustrated. The situation in Florida – where long lines were the norm – made national news during this most recent election. As usual, Florida faced a host of election-day problems, which ranged this year from long ballots to logistical issues linked to the housing crisis, according to this report.
Another problem with our current voting system? It’s expensive. Think of the cost of machines and poll workers. Saving money is one of the reasons Oregon went to a mandatory vote-by-mail system. It’s 30 percent cheaper, according to this article.
So why not use new technology? Or, to help prevent a rush on Election Day, more early voting? Or how about another trend, the use of so-called “voting centers”? In that case, voters don’t have to go to a specific polling place. Instead, they go to one of the voting centers, which are larger and able to accommodate a greater number of voters.
Early voting is a growing trend, no question. In the 2008 presidential election, 30 percent of the electorate voted early.
Harvard University government professor Dennis Thompson, for one, doesn’t think that’s a good thing.
“When citizens go to the polls on the same day, publicly participating in a common experience of civic engagement, they demonstrate their willingness to contribute to the democratic process on equal terms,” Thompson wrote in 2008.
One of the pitfalls the article also notes: Suppose you vote early and something controversial happens with the candidate you choose. There’s no going back.
And, of course, you get no “I Voted” sticker.
Today we talk with Scott Tranchemontagne, a representative for the Balsams Grand Resort, where the historic vote in Dixville Notch, New Hampshire takes place. We welcome his insights on the unique place the township and resort have in our nation’s voting history.
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The Balsams Grand Resort has a unique place in our nation’s election history. On Election Day, at midnight, the voters of Dixville Notch gather there to be the first in the nation to cast ballots. How did your establishment become the polling center?
New Hampshire has held the First-in-the-Nation Primary since 1952. Prior to 1960, another small town in northern New Hampshire, Hart’s Location, had the honor of voting first at midnight. It started as a practical way to allow its voters, most of whom worked on the railroad, to vote without having to take unpaid time off from their day jobs. In 1960, renowned industrialist Neil Tillotson, who had purchased the Balsams Grand Resort out of bankruptcy in the early 1950s, struck a deal with a national newswire reporter. Dixville would vote at midnight and the reporter would broadcast the results nationally, sooner than results could be reported from Hart’s Location. Over subsequent elections the media gravitated to Dixville and away from Hart’s Location, as the hotel had better phone lines and overnight accommodations. Hart’s Location eventually stopped voting at midnight – and even when they began the practice again in the 1990s, the media continued to go to the Balsams Grand Resort and report Dixville’s vote first. It’s important to recognize that Dixville is an unincorporated town that is populated almost exclusively by resort employees who live there.
How many people cast their ballots there and how do they cast them?
This year, ten voters cast ballots in the 2012 general election. Each voter has an individual voting booth and a paper ballot. At the stroke of midnight, each voter marks a ballot and then joins a single-file line in front of the historic wooden ballot box. Each voter then drops his/her ballot in the wooden box. The Town Moderator and Town Clerk then count the votes and proceed to a podium next to a tally board to announce the results. The entire process takes about 1-3 minutes, and with today’s media broadcasting live from the polling station, the world knows within moments how Dixville residents have voted.
How has the voting process at the resort changed, if at all, over the years?
The voting tradition has remained remarkably consistent over the years. Every year except 2012, the vote has been held in the Balsams Grand Resort’s famous “Ballot Room”, which is a small square room approximately 25 feet wide and 25 feet deep. This year, because the hotel is undergoing major renovations, the vote was held at the Balsams Grand Resort’s Wilderness Ski Area Lodge, approximately 1.5 miles away from the hotel.
This voting process gets tons of media attention. Has it become too overwhelming at times? What special efforts and accommodations are made at the resort in preparation for election day?
The Dixville voters and the Balsams Grand Resort take their First-in-the-Nation voting responsibilities very seriously. As such, we welcome the local, regional, national, and international media coverage. Many special efforts and accommodations are made in advance of the vote. Most revolve around communicating with the media who want to cover the event and stay over at the hotel. Over the years, as media technology has developed, the tasks have changed. Since 1960, the Balsams has always installed additional phone lines for reporters. Today, we also make sure to have space for live satellite trucks from all the major television networks, many of whom broadcast the election live. The hotel also offers WiFi as an amenity to its guests and we boost its accessibility and bandwidth for the press on election night, so they can instantly file the results from their laptops. A few years ago, a cell phone tower was installed on a nearby mountaintop to improve cell phone service. The hotel hosts many of the presidential candidates during the campaign as they visit with New Hampshire’s North Country voters. On election night, we cater a reception for the media, candidates, and election observers who come from near and far. During the presidential primary vote in January 2012, we welcomed a delegation of election observers from Sweden, as well as a group from Japan. For the general election earlier this month, we also had international visitors, as well as two political science classes from Franklin Pierce University.
The Ballot Room is so-named because that’s where the ballots are cast, of course. When did the room get that name? What purpose did the room serve before this?
The Ballot Room has been the location of Dixville’s First-in-the-Nation voting since 1960. The room is adorned with photos and campaign artifacts from elections past, and serves as a living museum for guests and visitors. The Ballot Room and all of its important artifacts were disassembled and carefully preserved during the current renovations. The room will be rebuilt in the new Balsams Grand Resort.
It is our understanding that the ballots are immediately counted and a winner declared. What is that process like? Does everyone who voted stay to hear the results? How is that announcement made? How does the rest of the town respond?
This year, ten voters cast ballots in the 2012 general election. Once the voters have dropped their ballots in the wooden box, the Town Moderator and Town Clerk then count the votes and proceed to a podium next to a tally board to announce the results. The entire process takes about 1-3 minutes, and with today’s media broadcasting live from the polling station, the world knows within moments how Dixville residents have voted. Everyone who votes stays to hear the results. Practically, there isn’t time to leave, even if they wanted to! With respect to the rest of town – its important to understand that the town of Dixville is essentially the Balsams Grand Resort. Equally important is the fact that 100% of Dixville’s registered voters show up to vote at midnight. If one person could not make it at midnight, Dixville would need to leave the polls open until that person could vote, by New Hampshire law. A voter attendance of 100% is an indication of how seriously all Dixville voters take their responsibility.
Who are some of the presidential candidates that have visited?
Many presidential candidates over the years have visited the Balsams Grand Resort, including some who became president. Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Gary Hart, John McCain, Lamar Alexander, Wesley Clark, Dick Gephardt are but a few.
This year, because the resort is undergoing renovation, the vote was moved to a nearby ski lodge. How was that location selected?
The ski lodge was chosen because it was the most appropriately sized and accessible location on the Balsams Grand Resort property.
One of the themes we’re looking at this month is the variety of places Americans vote and the question of whether polling places will continue to exist at a time when technology will enable people to vote by email, texting, and other methods. The tradition of going to the polls is a strong one for many Americans. What do you see in the town’s tradition and what do you think the future holds for how votes are cast there?
The tradition of casting paper ballots in Dixville will live on, primarily because the Dixville voters and the Balsams Grand Resort are committed to keeping this historic tradition alive. The highest voter total in any general election at the Balsams was 38 in 1988, when George H.W. Bush routed Michael Dukakis 34-3, with one vote going to Jack Kemp. On average, about 25 votes are cast in the general election. This keeps the event small and the votes easy to count and report in a short period of time.
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Thank you Mr. Tranchemontagne for continuing to keep democracy and this important voting tradition alive at The Grand Balsams Resort.
Mike Stetz, Senior Writer
Collaborative Services, Inc.