McGill student first to vote in U.S. election

As Tanner Tillotson goes, so goes the nation

Tanner Tillotson: Keeping up a family tradition in the midnight hour.
Tanner Tillotson: Keeping up a family tradition in the midnight hour.

By Pascal Zamprelli

They were the first results to trickle in, very early on the morning of Nov. 4. They were a sign of things to come: Obama 15, McCain 6. Dixville Notchhad spoken.

Dixville Notch is a tiny town in New Hampshire known best for mountains, a hotel and a latex glove factory. At least it was until 1960, when a man named Neil Tillotson came up with a novel way to put his town on the map. He found a law stating that towns under a certain population could, by unanimous vote, decide to close their polls early on election day. The residents of Dixville Notch agreed they would all show up to vote at midnight.

Thus their hamlet became the traditional source of the very first election results and an instant media sensation, scrutinized in the wee hours by eager pundits and an anxious electorate. “As Dixville Notch goes, so goes the nation,” has become a slogan heard across the country every four years.

Until his death in 2001, Mr. Tillotson was given the honour of being the first voter in the country. Since then, all voting residents (usually totaling about 20) throw their names into a pot and one name is chosen at random to go first. Almost as though Mr. Tillotson were pulling some celestial strings, the chosen name this year was his grandson’s: 20-year old McGill computer engineering student Tanner Tillotson.

“It’s a big family tradition,” Tillotson said, “so I was excited to go down to vote. I think it’s very important – a great tradition to carry on. And it brings in a lot of attention.” That’s an understatement. “There were definitely more media than there were voters,” he added with a laugh. When trying to get to representatives from TV McGill to do an interview, he kept getting intercepted by the likes of the CBC, the Associated Press, and even Dan Rather’s news crew.

The vote itself was “definitely a very big upset,” said Tillotson. In fact, Dixville Notch has voted for the Democratic candidate only once – in 1968 – since the tradition began. An Obama supporter, Tillotson thinks his town, like the rest of the U.S., is changing demographically, and was hungry for a new direction.

“I think it has a lot to do with people wanting change and realizing that we needed to find something better,” he said, adding, “I’m glad we did.”