Thirty miles south of the Canadian border, in the rugged logging and snowmobiling North Country of New Hampshire, nestled in the White Mountains is the tiny town of Millsfield. There are just 23 residents, including children. There’s no post office here. No schools. No cell phone service.
"It’s a peaceful, pleasant little place. Nice and quiet, tight-knit community," said lifelong resident Sean Cote.
"It’s so small you get the opinion of the whole town in an hour," explained resident Tom Claflin.
It’s the kind of place that helped earn the Granite state its famed motto: “Live Free or Die.”
"If you’re the type of person who needs government to put up streetlights; you’re the type of person who needs government to deliver mail right to your door; you need government to supply you with drinking water, and you want government to pick up your trash by the curb, you’re not going to do well up here because there is no government, and that’s how we like it," said resident Wayne Urso.
It’s not that there’s no government. Urso is one of the town’s three selectmen, after all. Millsfield is unincorporated, and theirs is a limited, self-government. They take care of all their business at a single, annual town meeting. Their unofficial town hall is a cozy, Bed and Breakfast owned by Sonja Sheldon and her husband Charlie.
They also take voting in state and national elections very seriously around here. Like their yearly town meeting – and the annual Christmas party for the record –elections also take place at the Sheldons' B&B.
"You’ve seen the bedrooms where we vote and each voting booth has it’s own private bath as well so...you can take your time," said Sonja Sheldon.
Government, specifically picking the person in charge of it, also brings a parade of media every four years to neighboring Dixville Notch and the majestic Balsams Grand Resort Hotel -- home, since 1960, of the famed “first in the nation” midnight vote. But the Balsams has been closed for the last five years, with portions in complete disrepair. Fears that there’d be no midnight vote in the north country for this – New Hampshire’s centennial primary – were a topic of conversation when New Hampshire’s Secretary of State visited Millsfield last year for a poll inspection.
"Sonja asked him if he was aware that Millsfield used to also participate in midnight voting," said Urso.
"And I just about knocked him on his heels. He was not aware of this," recalled Sheldon.
"He immediately said, you ‘folks have to do this again,’" said Urso.
Millsfield’s midnight voting history actually predates Dixville’s by eight years, but they hadn’t done it in decades. Urso loved the idea of rekindling it. But, as I learned, in Millsfield everyone gets a say. And so it was added to the agenda at the town meeting last in March.
"I was surprised [by] the reaction of everyone wanting to bring it back. That just that floored me. I mean it was wonderful," said Charles Sheldon, also the official town moderator.
For the better part of a year, preparations have been underway. With MSNBC and CNN slated to cover the vote, they’ve decided to move it from the Sheldons' cozy B&B to Millsville’s one restaurant. They’ve ordered voting booths, a first, and have gone over every detail with a fine toothed comb.
"We’ve had so many dry runs. And we’re well rehearsed and we know what we’re gonna do. It should go well," said Charles Sheldon. "I feel confident, a hundred percent confident, that everything's going to go smooth."
In recent weeks, it’s come to light that the owner of the Balsams still plans to hold a midnight vote in Dixville Notch. Urso says there’s no rivalry brewing and that Millsfield’s not trying to steal anyone’s thunder. And besides, said Urso, "At last count I thought there were only two residents of Dixville. And I don’t know how you hold an election with two residents."
While it might be easy to see Millsfield’s midnight vote as a gimmick or much ado about nothing, it certainly isn’t for Sonja Sheldon. Her life changed profoundly when she found a home here decades ago. And when she reflects on her role in organizing this historic vote in the tiny community where she says they will “bury her bones," well...
"I’m truly dumfounded. It’s truly unbelievable and it’s, to me, it’s overwhelming. It’s overwhelming," she said.
But, she assures me, not so overwhelming that she won’t be ready to do her duty on in the wee hours Tuesday morning, shortly after midnight, as one of the three official counters of the first ballots cast in the first in the nation primary.