Balloons drop at the end of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney's speech at the Republican National Convention in Tampa. (Toni L. Sandys / The Washington Post)

The Republican National Committee on Friday voted to significantly compress its presidential nominating calendar and to move its nominating convention earlier in the summer of 2016.

The full committee voted at its annual winter meeting to approve a new rules package that would allow the four regular early states -- Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina -- to hold their nominating contests in February 2016 and penalize other states that might try to move their contests earlier than March 1.

In both the 2008 and 2012 nominating contests, states anxious to be one of the first contests have pushed the nominating calendar into early January. The result in 2012 was a long, sometimes nasty primary process that Republicans think hurt their chances of winning the presidency.

While the old calendar stretched six months from early January to late June -- and was competitive for about half that span -- the new one is intended to be as much as three months shorter -- from early February to April or May.

"Big reforms are coming to our presidential nominating process," RNC Chairman Reince Priebus said before the final vote, calling them "reforms to put Republican voters, not the liberal media, in the driver’s seat."

The penalty for states that attempt to break into February or January would be more stringent than they have been in years past, but it remains to be seen if they will actually prevent states from attempting to do so.

Also included in the new rules package is a change in the convention date. While it was held in late August in 2012, it will be held in June or July in 2016, in order to give the GOP nominee more time to turn to the general election. Candidates cannot use money raised for the general election until they are officially nominated -- a rule that caused significant problems for Mitt Romney, who was running out of primary funds in advance of the 2012 convention and was forced to take out a $20 million loan.

The new rules were passed by the RNC's rules committee Thursday with relatively little dissent, but the full committee had to ratify them Friday.

Here are some other details on the rules passed Friday:

* States that hold nominating contests between March 1 and March 14 must allocate their delegates proportionally rather than on a winner-take-all basis. States generally prefer the winner-take-all method (in order to have more influence and draw more interest from candidates), so the rule is designed to discourage the other 46 states from holding all their contests in early March.

* States must select their delegates at least 45 days prior to the convention, rather than the previous 35. This, combined with the earlier convention, should significantly tighten the primary schedule on the back end. In 2012, primaries were held as late as June.

* Penalties for states moving in February or January will be more serious than in the past. While the committee previously stripped them of half their delegates, they will now lose more than that, in most cases. States with at least 30 delegates would be left with just 12 representatives at the convention, while states with less than 30 delegates would have nine.