Don't Miss Opportunity to Level Playing Field in Corporate Elections

As many of you know, I petitioned the SEC last year to change the rule that allows blanks on a partially filled proxy or voter instruction forms (VIFs) to go to management and have also complained to the SEC about Broadridge’s failure to impartially identify proxy proposals on VIFs (see Investors Against Genocide Fighting American Funds, Broadridge and Vague SEC Requirements: More Problems Solved Using Direct Registration and “Corrected” Ballot at Altrea Tips Votes to Management).

At every turn, the deck seems stacked against retail shareowners, in favor of entrenched managers and boards. Now, with the enactment of Dodd-Frank, the SEC is seeking comments on provisions that require rulemaking by the Commission. Additionally, the SEC issued a Concept Release on the U.S. Proxy System with comments due October 20. These opportunities for comment offer our best chance to finally level the playing field in these areas.

Attached (at bottom of post) is a copy of the letter I sent to [email protected] twice yesterday, under two subject fields. One subject was “DF Title IX – Executive Compensation – voting by brokers.” The other subject line was “S7-14-10.” I hope some of you will also object to blanks fields going to management and VIFs that do not impartially identify proxy proposals. Remember, comments are due tomorrow, October 20th.

SEC. 957 of Dodd-Frank prohibits granting discretionary authority to brokers with respect to directors and executive compensation or “any other significant matter, as determined by the Commission.” If beneficial owners fail to provide instructions on how their proxies should be marked with respect to “significant” matters, no one should be empowered to vote on their behalf. The intent of that prohibition should extend to management in the case of blanks items on a partially completed proxy or VIF, as well as  brokers completing a totally blank proxy or VIF.  The SEC should use its rulemaking powers, not only to conform the provisions of Rule 14a-4 to the mandated and implied intent of Dodd-Frank but should also make a determination that all proxy matters are “significant.” After the complicity of auditors in abusive practices, such as those uncovered at Enron, no proxy item is insignificant.

The integrity of the voting system is critical. The SEC’s current rules send the wrong message to shareowners. They say, “don’t worry about voting. If you fail to submit a vote at all or you leave an item blank, we will allow your votes to be assigned to someone else… but not to someone of your choosing” regardless of possible conflicting or nonaligned interests of brokers, banks and corporate management.

The current rule does not reinforce a robust market or vigilance by shareowners. It does not send a message that voting is important. It is no wonder that shareowners then become shareholders, with only entitlements and no responsibilities, much like gamblers with betting slips. The Commission should encourage responsible ownership, not gambling.

The SEC should regulate the power relationships between actors in the market to provide a level playing field, not tip the balance to one party when the other fails to act. Instead, the SEC should remind each party of the importance of their respective roles. The current Rule 14a-4 misaligns interests by yielding disproportionate control to brokers, bankers, managers and boards, instead of educating and engaging shareowners.

(Thanks to the many individuals who reviewed and provided comments on the attached recommendations to the SEC.) blankvotesVIFs10-18

It should be noted that you can avoid much of the blank vote issue right now by always voting on MoxyVote.com. They use  Broadridge’s electronic voting platform too and can’t submit a VIF back to Broadridge without populating (gathering a vote from a user) every item on a ballot.  However, their system lets you set up your own default, instead of automatically having your blank vote go to management.

To do so, simply log in to your account at MoxyVote, go to:

  1. My Profile
  2. Down the left column, hit the button that says “Prioritize and Manage”
  3. In about the middle of the page, you’ll see “Default Voting Positions” with the choice of voting
    1. abstain
    2. with the board’s recommendation
    3. against the board’s recommendation

I’ve got mine set to abstain whenever I leave an item blank. You may want to set yours differently. Using MoxyVote, at least you have a choice right now. You won’t find that at ProxyVote.com, the platform that most brokers send you to. Since most shareowners still use ProxyVote, we still need a change in the rules by the SEC regarding how blank votes are counted. Additionally, VIFs still need to follow the rules applicable to proxies, like providing an unbiased description of each item to be voted on. These descriptions will continue to slant votes to management unless the SEC requires a level playing field, so it is important to comment to the SEC about these issues.

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