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Jan 31, 2016 11:42 AM

Photographers, not just candidates, battle for midnight vote in NH primary


CONCORD — Decades ago, the fierce competition to win the New Hampshire primary wasn't limited to the presidential candidates. News photographers also fought to be first.

In just over a week, voters in three tiny northern towns will cast their ballots at midnight, delivering the debut results of the first-in-the-nation primary hours before polls open elsewhere. While each tradition has its quirks — Millsfield is muscling its way into the spotlight after a long break — Dixville's story is the most dramatic, depending on which version you believe.

Some say a United Press International photographer not only urged the owner of the Balsams Grand Resort Hotel to host a midnight vote in 1960 but nudged the hands of the clock ahead to ensure he'd beat his rivals in Hart's Location, where residents had been voting early since 1948. Others say it was an Associated Press photographer who suggested the early voting idea to hotel owner Neil Tillotson.

A UPI article published in 1979 gives Tillotson sole credit for starting the tradition, but says a UPI photographer "spent two days convincing one reluctant resident to come down from his mountain home to vote so the polls could close right away."

On Feb. 9, Dixville residents — all nine of them — will keep the midnight vote tradition alive for the 100th anniversary of New Hampshire's primary, said Tilliston's son Tom, himself the town moderator. The voting won't happen inside the hotel's famed ballot room, however, because the resort is undergoing renovations.

No one knows for sure where the idea for the midnight vote came from— the key players have all died. But there's no question the stakes were high given that the first photo sent ended up on newspaper front pages around the country the next morning.

"It was key to get that first shot off," said Dan Wolf, a former UPI photographer who covered the primary from 1968 to 2004. "People would pull the plug on the phone to cause trouble. It was a very friendly rivalry, but it was a rivalry."

Wolf remembers running from his makeshift darkroom waving a still-wet photo in the air to dry it as he rushed to the transmission machine. The competition was so intense, one year he was tempted to re-use a photo from the previous election cycle when he realized Tillotson always wore the same outfit.

Wolf said it was Don Robinson, UPI's chief photographer in Boston, who asked Tillotson to have Dixville — which mainly consisted of hotel workers — incorporated as a town for voting purposes.

"Don said ... 'Why don't you do this thing and we'll put Dixville on the map? And that's basically what happened," Wolf said. "The AP and UPI always went to Hart's Location. Don didn't show up, and nobody could figure out why he wasn't there. He was over in Dixville, taking that first picture."

Asked whether Robinson tinkered with the clock, Wolf laughed before answering.

"That has been suggested for many, many years," he said. "It may have been very difficult to beat the AP without a little bit of help."

Tom Tillotson, 70, says he's heard lots of jokes about his father's watch being set a minute or two fast, but he doubts it was true. He does remember his father discussing the idea of midnight voting with a photographer in 1959 and getting permission from the Legislature in time for the 1960 general election.

Steve Barba, who started working at the Balsams in 1959 and retired as general manager in 2006, said the elder Tillotson told him it was AP's J. Walter Green who made the suggestion. Moving the action to the hotel made the logistics much easier for the media, he said.

While some suggested Tillotson seized on the midnight voting idea as a publicity stunt, the hotel never promoted it in its brochures or ads, Barba said. For him, what made the spectacle special was what happened in the months leading up to midnight, when many candidates would venture north to meet Dixville voters.

"We were a place where you could speak to everyone, and you could get their attention, and you could perhaps get their vote," he said. "It was just the best way to put a picture frame around the American voting process."


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