Balancing design objectives: Analyzing new data on voting rules in intergovernmental organizations


This article presents a new data set on one of the most visible features of institutional design - voting rules. The data set covers 266 intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) that vary in size and substantive scope and includes data on IGO issue area and founding membership characteristics that complement the measures on voting rules. The article outlines the characteristics and categorization of voting rules in the data set and establishes the broader importance of voting rules by illustrating how they help states achieve four core institutional design objectives: control, compliance, responsiveness, and effective membership. The utility of the data set and patterns in the relationships between its variables are identified through the evaluation of preliminary propositions connecting institutional context and voting rule selection. The preliminary findings emerging from this analysis establish a platform for further analyses of voting rules in IGOs, as well as other dimensions of the design and function of IGOs.

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  1. 1.

    “Libya no-fly zone leadership squabbles continue within Nato”, The Guardian, March 23, 2011; “Turkey and France clash over Libya air campaign”, The Guardian, March 24, 2011.

  2. 2.

    Joining an IGO involves a limitation of sovereignty because decisions taken by the IGO that affect state interests and welfare are made by a collective decision-making body of which each state is but only one member (Hawkins et al. 2006). Therefore, states have an incentive to maximize their influence in the decision-making process and thus their control of the IGO.

  3. 3.

    IGOs are often portrayed as promoting greater inter-state cooperation, which, by its very nature, entails the mutual adjustment of behavior by cooperating partners (Keohane 1984; Koremenos, Lipson, and Snidal 2001).

  4. 4.

    While not an exhaustive list of the aims that states pursue in the design of IGOs, the four goals identified here are primary objectives driving state design preferences and they represent the conceptual core of many other objectives that states pursue that are more specific to particular issue areas and contexts within which IGOs operate.

  5. 5.

    We acknowledge that multiple IGO design features can help states manage these core objectives. For example, enforcement mechanisms such as formal dispute settlement procedures can encourage compliance with institutional commitments (e.g., Smith 2000). However, perhaps more than any other feature, voting rules directly affect the attainment of all four and are present in nearly all IGOs.

  6. 6.

    See Tsebelis (1996) and Tsebelis and Garrett (2001) for a similar argument regarding voting in the Council of the EU.

  7. 7.

    For similar perspectives see Coleman (1971) and Dixon (1983).

  8. 8.

    We note that there is a rich literature dedicated to the analysis of voting rules (e.g., Shapley and Shubik 1954; Banzhaf 1965, 1966) and while a number of studies seek to uncover the precise influence of individual member states when voting in unequal systems, they are often limited to single prominent organizations (e.g., O’Neill 1996; Strand and Rapkin 2005). Our more general classification of attributes of voting rules enables us to identify what states decide with respect to the general principles of blocking capacity and equality in their voting rules and to compare those decisions across a large number of IGOs.

  9. 9.

    We note that unanimity voting does not completely solve compliance problems and situations exist in which states have incentives to defect—especially when free-riding on others’ compliance is profitable—but unanimity offers the best option of the three voting rule types to promote compliance.

  10. 10.

    These excluded IGOs are identified in the codebook accompanying the data set. Codebook and data can be found at this journal’s web page.

  11. 11.

    Measures amending an organization’s charter and/or its core rules of procedure often require at least a super-majority and many times unanimous agreement for passage.

  12. 12.

    The data set contains the name of this body for each IGO.

  13. 13.

    For example, in the Southern African Development Community, all policy decisions are taken by unanimity; however, the voting rule shifts to a majoritarian one (with a threshold of three-quarters) when voting over amendments to the treaty. Since treaty amendments are not the regular business of IGOs, we code the unanimity rule.

  14. 14.

    See codebook, located at this journal’s web page, for a full list of IGOs included in the data set and for a list of IGOs for which voting rule data is missing.

  15. 15.

    There are 21 IGOs in the COW data set for which we were unable to find any formal information at all regarding their structure and functions in printed or online sources. While this is a concern, it is not unreasonable to assume that the overwhelming lack of information for these IGOs indicates they are among the least influential IGOs in the international system.

  16. 16.

    While weighted voting does give some states considerable control, it requires others to accept weaker voting power and a correspondingly low level of control, which they are unlikely to do when control is a priority.

  17. 17.

    We do not suggest that states and leaders do not care about controlling IGOs in other issue areas such as health, education, and the environment; however, there is comparatively little scholarly evidence that leaders, on a large scale, associate international outcomes in these areas with state or leadership survival, and thus IGOs that focus on these issue areas do not engage states’ core interests to the same extent as economic and security IGOs. Thus, we expect states to be more willing to sacrifice control and forsake unanimity voting in these other areas.

  18. 18.

    Several scholars have noted that when states contribute a large amount of funds they will expect to have greater control over the institution and how those funds are managed (e.g., Barnett and Finnemore 2004; Lister and Frederick 1980).

  19. 19.

    Institutions are well-equipped to facilitate compliance in this manner because they offer opportunities for credible issue linkages (Martin 1992; Keohane 1984).

  20. 20.

    See, for example, Zweifel (2006) or for a contrasting view, Dahl (1999).

  21. 21.

    Table 3 reports 254 observations in the sample for models 1–3 and 242 for model 4. From the original 266, nine cases were omitted because their charters did not contain voting provisions (“no rule”), three cases in the analysis were dropped through listwise deletion because founding membership could not be ascertained and in model 4 a further 12 cases were dropped due to missing Polity IV data.

  22. 22.

    Relative odds ratios, which are useful for demonstrating the substantive effects of coefficients without relying on specific variable values, are available in supporting material at this journal’s web page.


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The authors would like to thank Gary Goertz, Adrienne Héritier, Barbara Koremenos, Alexander Thompson, Johannes Urpelainen, Byungwon Woo, the participants of the conference on data in IGOs at the Social Science Research Center Berlin, and the editor of RIO and two anonymous reviewers for excellent comments and suggestions on earlier drafts. We also thank Felix Braunsdorf, Hanna Israel, and Xaver Keller for valuable research assistance. All errors remain our own.

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Correspondence to Autumn Lockwood Payton.

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Blake, D.J., Payton, A.L. Balancing design objectives: Analyzing new data on voting rules in intergovernmental organizations. Rev Int Organ 10, 377–402 (2015).

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  • Voting
  • Institutional design
  • International organizations
  • Data