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The Role of Proportional Representation in the New Hampshire Primary

by Elise Helgesen, Rob Richie // Published January 10, 2012
Primary Sign

In the wake of the nonbinding Iowa caucuses, the first primary of the 2012 presidential election is being held today in New Hampshire. Those eagerly anticipating the results of this Republican primary will note that the delegates elected will be allocated according to proportional representation, and not by a winner-take-all allocation.

New Hampshire’s primaries are conducted according to state national party rules, although within rules established by the state relating to who can vote. The Democratic Party requires the allocation of delegates according to proportional representation based on a 15% threshold.  Without a major challenger, Barack Obama is expected to earn all of the state’s delegates,

Meanwhile, Republican parties are holding a hotly contested primary with six major candidates. As in the past, the New Hampshire Republican Party allocates delegates on the basis of proportional representation. To earn a share of the state’s 12 delegates up for grabs today, a candidate must earn at least 10% of the vote, which as many as five candidates (Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, Jon Huntsman, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich) may surpass. Thus, even if Mitt Romney wins, as expected, it’s quite possible that nearly two-thirds of delegates will be awarded to other candidates.

State rules vary widely. After March 31st, a number of states will award all their delegates on a “winner-take-all” basis to the winner of the statewide vote. Some states have a mix of delegates being allocated based on the statewide vote (using either winner-take-all or proportional representation) and based on results in districts. South Carolina, for example, allocates 11 delegates based on the statewide vote and 2 each according to who carries each congressional district. That’s not  “proportional representation,” although it may lead to more than one candidate earning at least some delegates.

Although the New Hampshire delegation has been penalized half of its original 24 delegates under Republican Party Rules 15(b)(1) and 16(a) for moving its primary date before February 1, the state has fully complied with Rule 15(b)(2), which states that all primaries held before April 1 shall be conducted using proportional representation. Thus, New Hampshire may have lost half of its delegates, but its delegates will represent the voters of New Hampshire more fully than states that use a winner-take-all system.

As FairVote’s Rob Richie has written, the Republican Party in 2008 was not helped by so many winner-take-all contests, which effectively ended the nomination battle before many states had voted. This allowed Democrats more chance to dominate the media and develop get-out-the-vote operations in more states ultimately carried by Barack Obama, such as late-voting states like Indiana and North Carolina. As a result, Republicans in 2010 modified their rules to require great use of proportional representation. States like Florida have flaunted that rule, as they will award all their delegates based on the statewide vote.