By Blake Neff
The hotly contested GOP nomination has brought increased attention to the intricacies of primary and caucus rules. While many people are aware of winner-take-all and proportional delegate states, the way Republicans allocate delegates has many bizarre quirks that have largely escaped notice, which could have major consequences in a close election season that could end with a contested convention.
Here’s six of the weirdest quirks about the Republican nomination process, discovered with the help of The Green Papers, an extremely detailed database of primary election information created by Richard Berg-Andersson.
1. The GOP’s rules heavily reward small Republican-controlled states.
Much like the Electoral College itself, the Republican primary process allocates delegates by states, but not in proportion to population. The largest state, California, has 172 delegates, but every state also has a minimum of 16 delegates, meaning the largest state only has about 10 times the delegates of the smallest state, even though California is over 40 times the size of several small states like Wyoming, Vermont and Delaware.
The skew can be even greater because states can receive a fixed number of bonus delegates for electing Republicans to various offices. Having a Republican governor is worth one extra delegate, as is each Republican senator, and having a majority-Republican house delegation. States also get a bonus delegate if one of their state legislative houses is Republican-controlled, and a second bonus delegate if all state legislative houses are Republican-controlled. Since these six bonus delegates are fixed regardless of a state’s size, they boost the relative importance of small states far more than they increase the relevance of large ones.
2. Electoral votes matter, but in an odd way.
In addition to rewarding states that have Republican officeholders, the Republican National Committee also rewards states that voted Republican in the most recent presidential election. But once again, the reward is calculated in an odd way that heavily favors smaller states.
Instead of giving states a delegate boost equal to their electoral vote total, states that voted Republican in 2012 are rewarded a bonus delegate count based on the following formula: 4.5 + (0.6 x [2012 electoral vote total]).
So, for example, Indiana voted Republican in 2012 and had 11 electoral votes, so it receives a bonus of 12 delegates, since 4.5 + (11 x 0.6) = 11.1 (all fractions round up).
This mathematical formula heavily favors small states over large ones. States with only three electoral votes receive a bonus of seven delegates, more than twice their electoral vote count, while Texas’s 38 electoral votes produce just 28 bonus delegates.
The two different sets of bonuses, for elected officials and electoral votes, have the effect of giving small but heavily Republican states a tremendous degree of power compared to large but Democratic ones. Wyoming, for instance, voted Republican in 2012 and is dominated by Republicans at both the state and federal level. Since it received every bonus delegate possible, the state has 29 delegates to the Republican convention. California, the country’s largest state but one that received no bonus delegates, has 172 delegates. In other words, California has only about six times as many delegates as Wyoming, even though California is 70 times the size of Wyoming. Wyoming actually has more delegates than Oregon, a state with seven times as many people.
3. Tiny U.S. territories are ridiculously overrepresented.
While U.S. territories can’t vote in national elections, the Republican and Democratic parties both give them delegates for nominating presidential candidates. Sen. Marco Rubio’s biggest delegate win, in fact, came from picking up all 23 of Puerto Rico’s delegates.
But Puerto Rico isn’t the only U.S. territory. The Republican Party also gives nine delegates each to Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and the Northern Mariana Islands.
Sure, nine delegates isn’t a lot. But it’s an incredible amount for their population figures, none of which surpass 200,000 people. With 52,000 people, the Northern Mariana Islands (which Donald Trump won March 15) have one delegate for every 5,800 people (Wyoming, by contrast, has a delegate for every 20,000 people), and the others aren’t far behind. In fact, each of the four small territories has more delegates per person than any of the 50 states or the District of Columbia.
4. While Republican states are overpowered, at the district level, Democratic districts have an advantage.
Slightly over half of all GOP delegates are allocated based on congressional district, with each of the country’s 435 congressional districts getting three delegates apiece. States are allowed to choose how these delegates are allocated. Some states, like Florida, award all their delegates based on the statewide vote. But in some states like California and South Carolina, the district-level delegates are awarded on a winner-take-all basis to the winner of each congressional district.
This arrangement can have the peculiar effect of reducing the power of Republican voters in heavily Republican districts while increasing the power of those in Democratic districts. For example, California’s 23rd congressional district gave over 60 percent of its vote to Mitt Romney in 2012, the most of any district in the state. The 13th district, on the other hand, is almost devoid of Republicans, with only 9 percent of its voters backing Romney. But both will choose three delegates to the Republican convention, even though the 23rd district has about six times as many Republican voters.
In other words, in at least some states, Republicans stuck in heavily or even overwhelmingly Democratic districts have substantially increased voting power in the Republican race.
5. One state never actually lets people vote for a presidential choice.
While specific rules vary dramatically from state to state, in the vast majority of jurisdictions Republicans hold either a primary or caucuses that let people express support for a particular candidate, either by directly voting for them or by selecting delegates who have pledged to support them if elected.
But one state breaks that mold. North Dakota holds a series of party caucuses but instead of choosing presidential candidates, participants solely select delegates to attend the state party convention, held in early April. At that convention, attendees will select 28 delegates to the national convention, but these delegates stand out because they will be totally unbound from the first ballot and can vote for whomever they want. Potential delegates may promise to vote for a certain candidate, but they are fully empowered to change their minds.
Colorado and Wyoming aren’t quite as freewheeling as North Dakota, but they come close. Both states also choose delegates at a state convention, but potential delegates are required to declare a candidate preference at the convention and are bound by their choices. However, a person can state their choice as “uncommitted,” and if elected they will go to the national convention unbound to anybody.
Pennsylvania and Illinois have the strangest rules of all. In Pennsylvania, its 17 statewide delegates will be bound by its primary result, but its 54 district delegates will be directly elected, and unbound going into the national convention. Illinois will also have directly elected district-level delegates, but will only be unbound if they run as an “unbound” candidate; if they have declared for a candidate they are required to back them.
6. Some Republicans just don’t get to vote at all.
Wyoming, like other states, uses a caucus system to choose some of its delegates. But the state has an unusual set-up, where 12 of its 29 delegates are chosen at various county-level caucuses while the remainder are picked at a statewide convention. Wyoming has 23 counties, so counties are divided up into pairs while Laramie County, the largest in the state, stands alone.
Instead of having each county pair pick a delegate, the state takes a more oddball route. Within each pair, one county’s voters elect the actual delegate to the convention, while the other county selects an alternate (who won’t be able to vote unless the original delegate becomes unavailable). Which county chooses the delegate and which chooses the alternate switches each election cycle, but nevertheless, each election cycle about half the state simply loses its ability to directly choose a delegate.
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