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Senate considers early presidential primary voting in unincorporated Millsfield

Union Leader Correspondent

May 04. 2014 10:20PM

MILLSFIELD — Thanks to the interest of its residents and a piece of legislation that will be considered this week, this sparsely-populated, unincorporated township could become one of the first places where votes will be cast in New Hampshire’s 2016 presidential primary.

At 10 a.m. Wednesday, the state Senate’s Executive Departments and Administration Committee will consider an amendment to House Bill 1400 — which would create a “First in the Nation Presidential Primary Centennial Anniversary Commission” — to also change state election law, specifically RSA 659:3, to allow Millsfield to close its polls as soon as every registered voter has exercised his or her franchise.

Currently, the town of Hart’s Location, and Dixville, which like Millsfield, its neighbor to the east, is also an unincorporated township, can open polls as early as midnight on a primary day but most importantly — especially for a nationwide audience eager to get any results — they have the right, as long as everyone has voted, to close quickly, too.

The amendment to HB1400 was introduced by Sen. Jeff Woodburn, D-Dalton.

On Jan. 21, Woodburn, along with Secretary of State Bill Gardner, visited A Peace of Heaven B & B in Millsfield — which is where Millsfielders vote and also hold their annual Town Meeting — to observe voting in the primary for the special election to fill the District 1 seat on the Executive Council.

While at the B & B, Gardner and Woodburn spoke with co-owner Sonja Sheldon and Wayne Urso, who is Millsfield’s selectman and as such oversees its elections, and they learned from Sheldon that Millsfield, according to a Time magazine article from Nov. 10, 1952, had begun early-primary voting in 1952, four years after Hart’s Location but eight years before Dixville.

Gardner told the Union Leader that during his and Woodburn’s visit to A Peace of Heaven, he was struck by how delicious Sheldon’s chocolate-chip cookies were and by the fact that he didn’t know about Millsfield’s primary-voting past.

“It was fun to find out something like that,” said Gardner, as well as a thrill “because I wasn’t expecting it and it just happened.”

Gardner, who earlier told Urso and Sheldon that 2016 would be the 100th anniversary of New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary, encouraged them to petition his office and lawmakers to add Millsfield to the list of early-voting communities and they did.

In a May 3 letter to the Senate’s Executive Departments and Administration Committee, Urso wrote that he and his fellow Millsfield citizens “strongly support this amendment.”

He added that “the purpose of Millsfield requesting the early voting is not, in any way, some sort of a competition of seeing which locality can have the earliest election results. We fully understand and honor the historical perspective of Dixville and Hart’s Location, and we are in no way trying to undermine their well-earned place in the N.H. Primary history.”

What Millsfield wanted, Urso continued, “is to simply revisit our own history in the NH Primary as part of this Centennial Celebration. Since the history of Millsfield and the NH Primary is largely unknown and forgotten, our goal is to simply refresh New Hampshire’s memory regarding Millsfield’s historic role during this Centennial Celebration.”

On Sunday, Urso said in a telephone interview he was “absolutely thrilled” that Millsfield might be able to vote early in 2016. He estimated that his community has about 18 registered voters; the number changes, he explained, because of transient residents.Woodburn in an e-mail on Saturday said he introduced his amendment to HB1400 even though doing so would strain his relationship with three North Country communities — Millsfield and Dixville are in Senate District 1, which he represents, Hart’s Location is not — and between him and the N.H. Democratic Party.

Millsfield is “one of the state’s most Republican strong-holds and rarely gives Democratic candidates more than a handful” of votes, said Woodburn, who added, however, that, “This is not about politics, election results or even publicity; it’s about process and which town can get 100 percent voter turnout. That alone will determine who is first.”

The amendment to HB1400, Woodburn summed up, is “not a slight at Dixville or Hart’s Location, but rather acknowledgement that Millsfield has a historic claim to be part of the process.”

Urso confirmed that Millsfield is overwhelmingly Republican, adding it’s not surprising given that the township doesn’t have a local government — the Coos County Commission acts as its board of selectmen — and that therefore its residents believe “smaller government is better and people just want to be self-reliant.”

Asked whether he or other Millsfield residents will come downstate for Wednesday’s public hearing, Urso said he doubted anyone would make the trip.

“We’re trying to get the point across that we all favor this,” he said of Woodburn’s amendment, “but let’s face it, Concord isn’t 20 minutes away and people need to work during the day and make a living.”

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