Harding County consists of two towns that between them have one gas station and no stoplights. Yet its residents rally to paint beautiful murals on buildings that most outsiders will never see, along state highways that most drivers will never travel. It’s the type of proud homestead where nearly one-tenth of the 650 residents travel hours to root for its girls basketball team, which made the state playoffs despite having only five players (in one game this season, the team finished with two players on the court after three fouled out — and still won by a point). Where the ascension of a local boy to the New Mexico Statehouse was rare enough to spur Election Day parties … and the curious controversy surrounding a local sheriff’s race spawned heated debates and spurred generations of families to the polls last November.
To outsiders, such details may seem like the small-town quirks of an obscure ranching community. But each contributes to a civic engagement that makes Harding County stand out among countless rural communities across America with wallpaper-white clouds and blue skies. In fact, according to an OZY exclusive analysis with political consulting firm 0ptimus:
Sure, Harding only has about 498 voting-age residents, according to census projections. Still, using voting-age estimates and vote totals, Harding County has had nearly 100 percent turnout in each of the past four election seasons. By comparison, New Mexico as a state saw 62 percent turnout in 2016. And there are lessons to be learned about what drives Americans to care enough to make their voices heard — even in small towns.
The energy of Harding County residents at the polls begins with a scrappy spirit away from them. “I see our community as one of the last frontiers,” says Tuda Libby Crews, a 75-year-old conservationist and rancher who also operates the Rectory, one of the area’s only bed-and-breakfasts, lovingly built from the ruins of a local Catholic church. In the village of Mosquero, Crews’ words have added weight. The road is flat for miles until it suddenly isn’t, giving way to desert canyons. The grass isn’t good for growing crops, but it’s good enough for cattle, and the families working this land produce hardy children.