WAGS NOTCH, New Hampshire. Lydia Robinson, registrar of voters in this town just across the Maine border, was up at 5 a.m. this morning to start the coffee brewing at the aging clapboard building that serves as town hall, grocery store and gas station for the five other permanent residents of this tiny hamlet. “I like to get a head start on the rest of the state,” she says. “If we hustle, I can be back home in time for LIVE With Kelly and Michael.”
Wags Notch is one of several New Hampshire towns that race every four years to complete their voting in the presidential election thus earning the distinction, however small, as the first municipality to report its results. “It’s our one chance at the spotlight,” says Asa Wagstaff, III. “We’re so far up in the mountains when you do a Google Earth search you get lost.”
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Long-time political observers expect Wags Notch to come in first this year, as it did in 2004 and 2008, because of a built-in advantage its residents have over voters elsewhere in the state. “The people of Wags Notch will be first to report,” says Larry Avalon, a professor of political science at Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, New Hampshire. “Their secret is they don’t give a damn.”
And indeed as Robinson hands out ballots to the other voters who make their way into the room one by one, it is clear they have less important things on their mind than presidential politics. “Do you want to sell your snowmobile?” Luke Wagstaff, Jr. asks Stephanie Schuster, a retired Federal Express driver who fell in love with Wags Notch when she delivered a Mopar air filter to the town in 1996. “Not for what you want to pay you skinflint,” she snaps back at him, and her fellow townspeople break out in laughter. “You wouldn’t pay a nickel to see an earthquake.”
The voters of Wags Notch have learned to play it coy in order to attract the maximum amount of attention before they return to hibernation until the next quadrennial election cycle. “I made Candy Crowley hop on one foot and make a noise like her favorite animal,” Asa Wagstaff recalls, referring to CNN’s senior political correspondent, “and I still wouldn’t tell her who I was voting for.”
Ballots are handed out and Elaine Bismarck, a third-generation resident who raises squash and corn on forty acres of land studded with granite left by glaciers that covered the state during the Ice Age, takes her pencil out of her pocket and licks the tip. “Once again, I’m going to have to write in my favorite,” she says as she writes “Hillary” on the line for “Other.” But a reporter points out, Hillary Clinton isn’t running for anything. “That’s Hillary, her sow,” says Joe Durnell, the town’s auto mechanic, as he pencils in “Alfred E. Neuman,” the long-time cover boy of Mad Magazine, the juvenile humor publication.
Wags Notch was settled in the seventeenth century by descendants of the Wag family of Scotland, a tribe of people that failed where other Highland clans succeeded because they joked about everything. “If there is one central theme that runs through the history of the Wags,” says Alfred Tuttle, a genealogist who specializes in Scottish family history, “it’s that they don’t give a rat’s ass about anything other than their daily bread.” Cold temperatures and indifference to sexual pleasure have caused the Wags’ numbers to decline even though their surname has come to be applied to many unrelated individuals who are also compulsive jokers, much as the Norwegian family name “Quisling” refers to collaborators generally after its most famous member.
Robinson tallies the votes handed to her by her fellow townspeople as she works hard to complete her own ballot, filling in circles in five columns for the different types of candidates–Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, Green and Other–running this year. “Hey Lydia,” Joe Durnell says as he watches her, “You only get to vote for one person.”
She gives him a sly smile, then turns her ballot around to show him her selection. “Not when you play ‘BINGO’!”