Voting for Barack Obama, a small New Hampshire town gets its 15 minutes of fame

As the cliche goes, blink and you’d likely miss driving through Dixville Notch, New Hampshire.

The town is clustered along a bend of US 26, the crags of Table Rock above, and surrounded by rolling hills that look like a painter’s palate in the fall. There isn’t a town here per se, but rather a golf and skiing resort called the Balsams. The Balsam’s is Dixville Notch’s town hall, community meeting place and pretty much its entire economy: Most of the town’s residents work here, and live in small homes scattered across the hillsides.

The Balsams is reason enough to stop in Dixville Notch. But every four years this little speck on the map gets about a 15-minute dose of fame as being the first place in America to cast ballots in presidential elections.

At midnight, Dixville Notch’s 21 registered voters crowded into the Ballot Room at the Balsams and voted. At about 12:15 this morning, the town was called for Barack Obama: He beat John McCain 15 votes to 6.Another small New Hampshire town, Hart’s Location, also voted. Its 29 registered voters split 17-10 in favor of Obama, with two write-ins for Ron Paul.

Both communities have a bit more than 100 residents between them.

Dixville Notch has been casting the nation’s first ballots continuously since 1960 (Hart’s started voting early in 1948, but abandoned the practice for more than 30 years before bringing the tradition back in 1996).

New Hampshire law says that once every registered voter has had his say in a particular town, voting stations there can close and votes can be tallied. In Dixville Notch, the whole process takes around 15 minutes – after which a broadcast goes around the world reporting who is officially leading on election day long before the rest of the country rouses from bed and slinks off to the polling stations.

So, a picturesque little resort halfway between New Hampshire’s White Mountains and the Canadian border gets to bask in the global spotlight for a little bit.

I was staying at the Balsams last year, in October, having made my way down from Canada. The day I arrived it happened that the resort was holding voter registration for townspeople. Eighteen had showed up to register.

“We’re unique,” a man named Alex at the front desk told me. “Every registered voter gets his own voting booth. We make sure of it. So, the whole process is over pretty quick.

“We used to have as many as 30 registered voters,” Alex added. “But it seems to go down every year.”

Still, hoards of media crowd in at the resort at midnight on election day. The number of visitors — i.e. other New Hampshire residents who drive to Dixville just to watch the vote, routinely outnumbers the people actually voting.

The nearest town, 12 miles away, doesn’t go to the polls until 8 a.m.

Election year or not, people staying at the Balsams can check out the ballot room, a musty meeting hall lined with green carpet, its walls festooned with pictures and newspaper articles from past elections.

There’s a plaque: “Dixville Notch: First in the Nation.”