HART’S LOCATION, N.H., 4:30 a.m. — It is the land of moose crossings and low, clinging fog; a place, in the immortal opening words of Twin Peaks, where “an orange light still means slow down.”

But Hart’s Location, N.H. has attracted the attention of the nation every four years since 1996 when it restarted the tradition of positioning itself as the first town in the first primary state to vote. True, there is another contender, Dixville Notch — a small community 80 miles north of here. But Hart’s Location-ites don’t like to think about them here.

“We believe that we are the first town to vote,” said Nancy Ritgard, a resident who helped in the polling booth. “There’s another small town that does that, but we’re much faster. And better.”

She added, “We were the ones that started it.”

The tradition began in 1948 but was phased out in 1964 when, some say, Dixville Notch stole the spot with a fast clock and an intrepid photographer who managed to get pictures out before anyone did here.

Others disagree.

“They just got tired of it and they stopped,” said Caroline King, a volunteer who owns the original kitchen table where the votes were collected from 1948 to 1964. “I’ve got the table at home,” she said.

True to its basic origins, the poll takes place in a small makeshift cabin up a small bank, indicated only by a truck with flashing lights sitting on the road. The atmosphere is jovial, almost that of a village fête but on a tiny scale. Everybody knows each other, apart from the two or three journalists (one who comes from as far away as France). Lumberjack shirts abound even though we are miles away from Williamsburg, Brooklyn and its hipster chique. The ambiance contributes to the tight-knit nature of the gathering, festooned with flags and posters of previous results.

Two hours away from any substantial hub of civilization on a desperately lonely road, Hart’s Location residents should not be surprised that they attract so few here. The cabin doesn’t even have running water.

However, while even the most intrepid explorers of the American political landscape might less than willing to trek this far, attendence is a necessity for this small spectacle to work.

“There are 29 voters, and we’ve got 100 percent participation which is unusual in America,” said the owner of the local Knotchville Inn and the city’s state representative. “As long as we have 100 percent participation, then we can go to the polls’.”

And if someone falls asleep?

“We’ll go find ’em; we’ve done that,” he said. “It’s just making sure that everybody is going to vote one way or the other…We had six or eight absentee ballots, and we had to make sure those people were voting.”

Bill King, another resident, affirmed the need for full voter turnout. “Everybody in town that wants to vote has to have the chance to vote, so they have to be contacted,” he said.

For all of its disconnect with the rest of the running-water world, given McCain’s tight lead here of six votes to Huckabee’s five, and Obama’s nine-to-three spread over Clinton, the votes cast after midnight seem to reflect mostly what pundits have predicted for the rest of the state.

“I think it’s presumptuous to think that whenever we vote, that this is reflecting what’s going to happen, but…I’ve been following the campaigns pretty closely this time, [and today’s vote is] reasonably reflective,” the owner of the Knotchville Inn told me. Added King, “Historically they’ve done pretty well with the predictions on them.”

“I’m pleased with the vote and the fact that we’re able to turn out 100 percent of our voters — that’s the only way we’re able to have the midnight vote,” said Mark Dindorff, a 17-year-old resident of Hart’s and one of the village’s three elected officials charged with organizing the midnight tally. “I challenge any other town in the country to come up with 100 percent turnout.”

Utopian? Perhaps.

“If we can inspire other towns around the country to get out and vote, then so much the better,” Dindorff said.

Although phrases such as “Direct Democracy” were bandied about with a little too much haste, it is true that Hart’s could serve as a poster child for democracy.

“Really, if we could acheive this in every other community in the States,” King said, “it would be amazing.”

Ritgard, meanwhile, likes to argue that if the entire 2008 presidential race were held only in Hart’s Location, the result might still be the same at the end of the day as that of a drawn-out national campaign.

“So goes Hart’s Location,” she says, almost aphoristically, “so goes the nation.”

– Nicolas Niarchos