MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Presidential hopefuls have been travelling through New Hampshire for weeks all hoping to win the first in the nation primary, which is almost a year away. For the last half century, voting has kicked off in a tiny hamlet called Dixville Notch. Every four years, voters gather at midnight and cast the first official ballots while camera crews from all over the world document democracy in action. But as Casey McDermott of New Hampshire Public Radio reports, this tradition might be gone by 2020.
CASEY MCDERMOTT, BYLINE: Dixville Notch isn't the only New Hampshire town that votes at midnight, but they've been doing it the longest, so they get most of the press coverage. And that means longtime Dixville voters like Peter Johnson have made cameos in all kinds of news stories ranging from CNN to The Sydney Morning Herald.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: While Republican Peter Johnson said he's looking for someone who can break the gridlock in Washington. And for him, that's Newt Gingrich.
PETER JOHNSON: Because of his experience, knows how to run the show down there.
MCDERMOTT: But all of those news stories left out one crucial detail. Peter Johnson doesn't live in Dixville Notch and hasn't for a long time. He moved away in the 1990s but kept voting there because he says he always planned to go back at some point. He just doesn't know when that will be. As he saw it, it didn't matter where he was casting his ballot for president as long as he wasn't voting in more than one place.
JOHNSON: I never registered to vote in any other municipality.
MCDERMOTT: Johnson's residency issues came to the attention of the New Hampshire attorney general's office shortly after the 2016 presidential election. State investigators started digging into Dixville's voter lists after they received several complaints questioning whether everyone who was voting in Dixville actually lived there. Anne Edwards with the New Hampshire AG's office says one of those complaints came from a woman who was watching TV coverage of Dixville's vote. She recognized one of the people voting in Dixville because, well, he lived in her hometown.
ANNE EDWARDS: So the transparency of the media coverage is part of what led to the concerns that were raised with our office regarding Dixville Notch and whether there were irregularities with the 2016 elections.
MCDERMOTT: It didn't take the state long to pinpoint those irregularities. That's because Dixville's voter lists aren't very long in the first place. Less than a dozen people voted there in 2016. And based on the state's review, Edwards says most of those people probably should have voted somewhere else.
EDWARDS: We don't think any of these individuals had any type of intent to commit voter fraud.
MCDERMOTT: The guy in charge of Dixville's elections doesn't see what the big problem is.
TOM TILLOTSON: They were honest voters. They were - you know, they were legitimate voters. I have no negative feelings or regret that they voted.
MCDERMOTT: Tom Tillotson says all of those voters had some kind of connection to Dixville even if they didn't own property there or live there year round. Whatever their circumstances, Tillotson argues that each of them had a right to vote, and he was comfortable letting them exercise that right in Dixville.
TILLOTSON: My God, when we have less than 50 percent of the people in this country voting, we should be doing everything we can to enfranchise and empower people to vote, not to disenfranchise, which is what seems to be happening.
MCDERMOTT: But as New Hampshire has gotten stricter about enforcing its voter residency standards, Dixville is facing a new and perhaps more existential problem. It's running out of people to run its elections. If Dixville can't scrape together a roster of ballot clerks, checklist supervisors and other offices required by state law, then its elections, including its storied midnight voting pastime, could be a thing of the past. For NPR News, I'm Casey McDermott in Concord.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.