When GPS instructs you to stay on your current route for the
next 91 miles, you know you're traveling far from home. I drove for
more than three hours from a western suburb of Boston into the
battleground state of New Hampshire on the night before the
November election, past four "Moose Crossing" signs and one "Brake
for Moose" sign, to stay with my host in Coos County. (That's two
syllables, by the way, "Co-os.") And soon after the sun peeked past
the mountain and glinted off the frosty farm fields below it, I was
on my way to monitor the polls, as a lawyer recently trained in
voter protection, in Northumberland, New Hampshire. Northumberland
is also called Groveton. (I could explain why the two names are
nearly synonymous, but it gets complicated.) The three uniformed
police officers who voted that day wore "Northumberland" patches,
but the 80-year-old voter who graduated high school in June 2016,
to set an example for her children and grandchildren, received her
diploma from Groveton High School.
Presiding over the vote was the mayor, Stevie. Well, he's not
really the mayor (Northumberland doesn't have one) and he wasn't
really presiding. Stevie has his challenges in life. He walks
around and visits with people in town during the day. He always
seems to secure a ride to and from his home in the next town, about
10 miles away. When he turned 60 recently, the town threw him a
parade. Stevie sat with election officials at the table where
voters checked out after filling in their ballots.
Actually presiding over the voting was the town moderator (an
elected part-time position), Keith Young. Keith would prefer not to
be the moderator, but the voters don't listen. He has been elected
three times by write-in votes, and unlike General William Tecumseh
Sherman, who said that if elected president he would not serve,
Holding an election in a small town can have its hitches, Keith
explained. Voters mind being asked for their identification by
people who have known them for years, decades ("Hi, Gorgeous," a
voter greeted an election official), but officials are required to
ask. And voters sometimes slow down lines by asking election
officials, who wear more than one hat, about town matters,
especially when the town office is closed for Election Day. Sending
voters on their way to the ballot box were Min, the town clerk and
tax collector; and Elaine, the deputy town clerk, assessing clerk
and secretary to the planning and zoning board. Voters with and
without questions about local affairs stopped to chat.
Before Stevie, the mayor, left at midday, he was joined by
Jeffrey, a young man with his own challenges. Keith swore in
Jeffrey as an election official. Other officials applauded. One
took a photo. Jeffrey became the operator of the electric pencil
sharpener near Min and Elaine, an important job on Election
Voters marked their paper ballots with pencils that the town
provided, although some brought pens to the polls to make sure that
their votes couldn't be erased. The ballots had bubbles to fill in,
even though there were no optical scanners, but Xs and checkmarks
and circles around the bubbles counted too. Yes, people still vote
with checkmarks. I saw the ballots when they were counted that
Voters handed their ballots to Keith, who placed them in a
wooden ballot box, roughly the size of a mini-refrigerator. Many
voters wanted to insert the ballots themselves, but Keith was
required to check the thickness to make sure that only one ballot
was going in at a time.
Before they voted, Keith's in-laws handed his 1-year-old
daughter to him. She wore pink socks with white hearts. He held her
with one hand and accepted ballots with his other.
At the entrance, election officials, including Barb and Nancy,
checked identifications and handed out ballots. Nancy is the mother
of Min, who was across the room at the check-out table.
"Bye, Poops," a departing voter called out, using Nancy's
"Love you," Nancy called back.
Barb, who looks too young to be a grandmother, let alone a
great-grandmother, held her great-granddaughter, 3 months old,
while her granddaughter voted. Her grandson later came in to
register and vote for the first time. (New Hampshire has
Election-Day registration.) She's a retired kindergarten teacher.
Among the dozens, if not hundreds, of her former students at the
polls that day was Keith, the moderator.
When the polls opened at 8:00 a.m., the town had 1,222 voters.
An even 100 people registered to vote that day. By the time that
polls closed at 7:00 p.m., 1,024 people had voted, in person and
absentee, a 77 percent turnout. Once or twice, voters occupied all
10 of the voting booths, shielded by red, white and blue curtains.
Keith barely had time during lulls to check emails from the
insurance agency that he owns.
When a high school student came to register, Keith joked that
for identification, he could use the Groveton Eagles basketball
warmup jacket with his name on the back. The student voted with his
mother, grandfather and great-grandmother, who, at almost 97, was
born in 1920, the year that American women first won the national
right to vote. Then they posed for a photograph of four generations
of voters. The student came back to count paper ballots that night
for hours, one of three members of the high school's honor society
to do so.
Two women arrived at the polling place, dressed in white, to
honor the 20th century suffragists who marched in white. Their ages
could have made them mother and daughter. The younger one
registered to vote and said that when the other woman had told her
about the suffragists, she thought it would be cool to dress in
white and vote for whom she hoped would be the first woman
president. They were not mother and daughter, but mental health
counselor and client. The client had asked her counselor to drive
her to vote.
In mid-afternoon, a voter arrived, dressed in her work uniform
with her employer's name on it. An election official asked, "They
let you out early?"
"Shhh," said the voter.
Another voter said, "Just got out of the woods." An election
official asked what she had been doing. "Haulin' and splittin',"
Countless voters wore hunting-camouflage jackets, hats and other
clothing. Many of their hats identified them as proud Vietnam
veterans. Four voters breathed from oxygen tanks that they carried
After dark, Min delivered ballots to two voters who were too
sick to enter the polling place, as New Hampshire law allows
election officials to do. On the way to the parking lot, she told a
man: Your mother texted me to make sure you vote. She handed the
ballots to the voters and said, "I'd give you a hug, but you're
sick." She spoke to a passing man: Your mother-in-law wants to know
if you've voted. (His mother-in-law is Elaine, who sat next to Min
at the check-out table.) She collected the completed ballots,
lingered as long as she could as one voter talked with fear in her
voice about her health, told the voter to reach her any time and
returned to the polling place.
The polling place used to be the social hall of the Moose Lodge.
Now it belongs to the town. The rest of the building is the police
station. Step outside the polling place and you can see the
mountains, including Percy Peaks, and a train station that closed
after the paper mill did in 2008. The mill building is gone and
outside the polling place, heavy equipment was preparing the site
for NCR, a Vermont company that drew 300 job applications.
My cell phone's calling function didn't work inside, although
texting sometimes worked if I leaned the cell phone against the
window pane. The website that I was supposed to use to report any
voting problems, length of lines and other information - I couldn't
get it to work. I got one email from the campaign before that
Which campaign sent me to Northumberland? You can guess, but it
doesn't matter. The lesson I pass on is not to forget the human
side of lawyering. You were a person before you were a lawyer. When
real life unexpectedly flows into your legal life, pay
Stevie is the mayor of Northumberland, and I was an honorary
citizen for a day. The children in the day care center across the
parking lot from the polling place delivered thank-you notes to the
election officials for all their hard work. A boy handed one to me
too. Barb brought her great-granddaughter across the room for me to
meet because I was a newcomer being welcomed into the
When I left Northumberland after 14 hours, the few election
officials still in the polling place were finishing counting the
ballots by hand. They told me to come back in four years, drive
home safely and watch out for the moose.
Ken Bresler is, among other things, the principal of
ClearWriting.com; a legal writing coach; the author of
Constitutional Law for Criminal Justice Professionals and Students
(Charles C. Thomas Publishers 2014); and the compiler of Mark Twain
vs. Lawyers, Lawmakers, and Lawbreakers: Humorous Observations
(William S. Hein & Co. 2014).