Investor Voice

Simple Majority Vote Counting Initiative for Proxies

voteThis guest post from Bruce Herbert of Investor Voice provides an overview of a simple majority vote counting shareholder initiative, which seeks to eliminate abstentions from the denominator in calculating votes as well as super majority threshold requirements that have not been approved by shareholders.

“Fair corporate suffrage is an important right that should attach to every equity security bought on a public exchange.”

– U.S. House of Representatives, Securities Exchange Act of 1934

Why Simple Majority Vote Counting Matters

Companies owe an undivided loyalty to shareholders, yet there is little consistency in how proxy votes are counted. Companies often use more than one vote counting formula within a single proxy, and this inconsistency has a disproportionate impact on shareholders, is confusing, quietly imposes supermajority thresholds, and results in majority votes being dismissed as failing.

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) mandates the use of a simple majority formula for determining resubmission eligibility of a shareholder-sponsored proposal. [See item F4 near the bottom of SEC Staff Legal Bulletin No. 14.] However, companies are chartered at the State level and so a federal mandate cannot establish a consistent voting standard for all proxy votes; hence, the initiative.

A simple-majority formula is a straightforward measure of FOR versus AGAINST votes used by 48% of companies (For divided by for and against votes):

FOR / FOR + AGAINST

Until recently, many companies used a variant vote-counting formula, made popular especially under Delaware law, which had a tremendously depressive effect on vote outcomes:

FOR / FOR + AGAINST + ABSTAIN + BROKER NON-VOTES

Fortunately, BROKER NON-VOTES were disallowed by the New York Stock Exchange in 2009; however, abstentions may still be counted using a formula we refer to as Modified Delaware used by 52% (For divided by for and against and abstain votes):

FOR / FOR + AGAINST + ABSTAIN

The Simple Majority Vote Counting Initiative

Adding numbers to the denominator of a formula has the invariable, mathematical effect of lowering the vote tally.

This can and does create sizable disruptions in vote outcomes, and has caused a number of majority votes (counted by a simple majority formula) to be dismissed as having failed.Investor Voice

To highlight and seek improved practices, Investor Voice created a Simple Majority Vote Counting initiative. Over the past six years 37 Proposals have been submitted to 13 companies, and to date, roughly one-third have taken steps to adopt a simple majority standard.

Co-filers in this initiative have included Boston Common Asset Management, First Affirmative Financial Network, Miller-Howard Investments, Newground Social Investment, and Walden Asset Management. Details on the shareholder Proposal’s evolution may be found in the appendix.

In an important development, CalPERS is also engaged. It commissioned GMI Ratings to write Vote Calculation Methodologies, which examined the largest 1,000 companies in the S&P 500 and Russell 1000, and found that 48% employ the simple-majority vote-counting standard requested by this initiative.

Research & Methodology

Investor Voice partnered with Cook ESG Research and the Sustainable Investments Institute to explore the question: “what impact does counting abstentions have on vote outcomes?” A dataset was created which includes every vote cast on a shareholder-sponsored proposal for the period 2004-2014. This comprises 6,379 discrete ballots and all companies listed in the S&P 100, S&P 500, and Russell 3000 (as well as other companies not on an index).

Calculations utilized the raw vote numbers provided by companies to the SEC, and vote tallies were generated using both the Simple Majority and the Modified Delaware formulas noted above.

In so doing it was possible to calculate the size of the ‘abstention gap’ – defined as the degree to which votes are reduced when abstentions are counted using the Modified Delaware formula – and also to examine instances where an individual vote would earn a majority under Simple-Majority, but would appear to fail under Modified Delaware.

For the purposes of this report, a 50% or higher vote that derives from a Simple-Majority formula will be referred to as a ‘true-majority’ outcome.

Study Results & Conclusions

Finding #1: From 2004-2014, 63 shareholder- sponsored proposal votes earned a true majority, but these votes were dismissed as failing under Modified Delaware.

During the same period, 73 shareholder proposals overall had vote tallies reduced by more than 10%, and 357 were lowered by more than 5% under Modified Delaware. The largest single abstention gap was a vote diminished by 49.0% under Modified Delaware.

The number of instances and the sizes of voting discrepancy uncovered serve to highlight the seriousness and extent of this under-recognized governance issue.

Finding #2: Of the 63 true-majority votes identified by this study, 39.7% had an abstention gap of 2.0% or less.

There is no threshold at which abstentions did not matter – indicating that whether large or small, abstention gaps erode shareholder democracy and can unseat true majority votes.

Confusion & Intent

Voter intent: Because it is not possible to discern an abstaining voter’s intent, a process, which unilaterally counts all ABSTAIN votes in a single way inevitably acts to disenfranchise certain voters.

Such a system exhibits a logical inconsistency that is not aligned with shareholder best interest.

Unnecessarily Confusing: Counting abstentions creates two vote outcomes for every shareholder-sponsored item, but only a single outcome for management-sponsored ones.

The two outcomes are: (a) the company’s count, and (b) the SEC-mandated simple-majority result (for determining resubmission eligibility).

Since shareholder-sponsored proposals are nearly all ‘precatory’ and non-binding – i.e., they are merely advisory to management – there is no practical end served by allowing two vote outcomes to stand. A company’s count is not determinative while the SEC’s result is; therefore, a Simple Majority standard reduces confusion and leads to the most accurate and informative outcomes.

Inadvertent supermajority: Because abstentions vary so widely company-to-company and item-to- item, counting them essentially creates a type of ‘backdoor’ supermajority requirement with moving targets on each-and-every vote – never clear what is truly necessary to pass. On one vote abstentions might create a 2% higher threshold, while another item on the same proxy could have a 30% higher threshold.

Simple Majority Vote Counting creates a clear, consistent standard across issues, companies, and time.

Abstention maneuvers: The Manhattan Institute’s Proxy Monitor is a conservative organ that actively criticizes shareholder resolution efforts. Toward its own ends, the ProxyMonitor consistently adds abstentions into vote tallies, which creates a false impression of low levels of support by investors for environmental, social and governance topics of concern.

The Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance and Financial Regulation (Accuracy in Proxy Monitoring) published an examination of these practices, and concluded: “In the last four years, the Proxy Monitor results… have consistently understated the voting results, sometimes significantly.”

Proxy Monitor’s deficient reports are widely used by the US Chamber of Commerce, widely quoted by SEC Commissioner Gallagher, and get published without scrutiny in WSJ articles and editorials.

A Simple Majority Vote Counting standard would ensure that all votes are handled and reported in an appropriately consistent, transparent, and above- board manner.

Transparent, Simple and Familiar

Simple Majority Vote Counting is aligned with investor expectations because it resembles something they are familiar with: Democratic electoral politics.

Proxy reporting: Major services – including ISS & Glass Lewis – harmonize reports to a consistent, Simple Majority vote counting format, which allows proxy votes to be comparable company-to-company and industry- by-industry.

States’ choice: Several states, including New York State (one of the nation’s most important business states and home to the NYSE), mandate simple majority vote counting as a default standard.

Delaware, home to the largest number of S&P 500 corporations, permits simple majority vote counting but has not yet mandated it.

Transparent: Investors report being unaware that under Modified Delaware their abstentions “have the same effect as a vote against.” They may be unclear how votes get counted because voting policies are difficult to find: proxies are long, don’t follow a consistent format, and the language can be highly technical – sometimes hinging on the legal meaning of a single word.

A Simple Majority Vote Counting approach clears the air of confusion over how votes are counted.

Votes for: Shareholders have already voted on a type of Simple Majority Vote Counting proposal 89 times from 2012-2015, and in each-and-every instance they affirmed it with votes from 62.3% up to 100%.

These recent proposals sought Simple Majority standards, both in terms of required thresholds and counting, in lieu of supermajority requirements, and the strength of the vote outcomes demonstrate that shareholders are familiar with, comfortable with, and overwhelmingly prefer a Simple Majority standard.

In Summary

Simple-Majority: 

  • Is in active use by 48% of American companies
  • Is mandated by several States
  • Is employed by proxy voting services
  • Has been adopted by a third of companies approached by this initiative; and where voted on has received support ranging from 8.1% up to 81.9%
  • Prevents manipulation by outside parties
  • Fairly, accurately, and consistently reports vote outcomes

Therefore, we seek to harmonize voting practices across all items at all companies through adoption of a uniform, Simple Majority voting standard.

Take Action: Support the Simple Majority Vote Counting Initiative

We invite you to join this initiative in support of shareholder democracy by voting FOR Simple Majority resolutions, filing shareholder proposals, and encouraging your company to adopt Simple Majority standards with regard to both thresholds and counting as a corporate governance best practice. For additional information see the Appendix below and the Investor Voice website.

Bruce Herbert

Bruce Herbert, Investor Voice

Guest Post: Bruce Herbert, AIF is Chief Executive of Investor Voice, a Seattle-based Social Purpose Corporation which provides shareholder analytics and engagement services to clients nationwide. Over the years Bruce has been active with a number of organizations that focus on art, activism, citizenship, and the common good.

Bruce is a past Governing Board Member of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR, that created the South African divestiture movement); co-founded and served as first Director of the Northwest Coalition for Responsible Investment; was a Founding Board Member of NBIS (the Network for Business Innovation and Sustainability); and was a two-term mayoral appointment to the Pike Place Market Historical Commission.

This post originally appeared on Investor Voice as Why Vote Counting Matters, March 17, 2015. I reformatted and made minor edits (primarily for search optimization), added links and those revenue-generating ads from Google.

APPENDIX
Filing History and Evolution of the Simple Majority Vote Proposal

Current Resolve clause:

Shareholders request the Board of Directors to amend the Company’s governing documents to provide that all matters presented to shareholders, other than the election of directors, shall be decided by a simple majority of the shares voted FOR and AGAINST an item. This policy shall apply to all such matters unless shareholders have approved higher thresholds, or applicable laws or stock exchange regulations dictate otherwise.

Proposal history:

  • 2009-2010 Simple-majority shareholder Proposal submitted for the first time.
    • One Proposal was voted on, and received a 17.8% FOR vote.
  • 2010-2011 One company accepted and enacted a simple-majority standard.
    • Plum Creek Timber enacted Proposal to adopt a simple-majority standard.
  • 2011-2012 One company accepted and enacted a simple-majority standard.
    • Cardinal Health enacted Proposal to adopt a simple-majority standard.
  • 2012-2013 Companies initiated SEC no-action challenges on basis of potential conflict with State law.
    • A number of strategic withdrawals were made.
    • Proposal was amended to ensure it fully aligns with State law.
    • Votes ranged from 8.7% up to 13.3%
  • 2013-2014 One company accepted and enacted a simple-majority standard. No SEC no-action challenges on basis of potential conflict with State law. Companies initiated SEC no-action challenges on basis of potential confusion regarding treatment of Board election vis-à-vis other items. Companies also challenged the format of Letters of Appointment and Letters of Intent.
    • J.M. Smucker Company enacted Proposal to adopt a simple-majority standard.
    • No challenge to a Letter of Appointment or Letter of Intent was upheld by the SEC.
    • One challenge regarding potential confusion was upheld – despite the fact that the specific language challenged had been quoted directly from JPMorgan Chase’s own proxy materials (where it had appeared for each of the six preceding years).
    • Proposal was amended to remove reference to Board of Directors election.
    • Votes ranged from 8.1% up to 81.9%
  • 2014-2015 One company accepted and enacted a simple-majority standard. No SEC no-action challenges were made on any grounds.
    • ConAgra Foods enacted Proposal to adopt a simple-majority standard.
    • McDonald’s Corporation agreed to a proxy notice and substantive consideration.
    • Proposal co-filed by Boston Common Asset Management, First Affirmative Financial Network, Miller-Howard Investments, Newground Social Investment, and Walden Asset Management.
    • Proposal expected to be voted on at 8 companies.

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3 Responses to Simple Majority Vote Counting Initiative for Proxies

  1. James McRitchie March 20, 2015 at 8:17 am #

    I received the following email from David Bogoslaw, Editor of the Corporate Secretary, which I thought would make a good followup to Bruce Herbert’s article.

    Dear readers,

    As we enter the thick of proxy season, it’s worth revisiting the structural bias against shareholder-sponsored proposals in most proxies. I’m talking about the counting of abstentions when determining vote percentage outcomes for such proposals.

    Investor Voice, partnering with Cook ESG Research and the Sustainable Investments Institute, has carried out a study of the impact that counting abstentions – referred to as the modified Delaware formula, and practiced by 52 percent of the companies in the S&P 500 and Russell 1000 Indexes – has on vote outcomes. The dataset it uses incorporates every vote cast on a shareholder proposal between 2004 and 2014, totaling 6,379 proxies. By comparing vote tallies generated by the simple-majority formula with the modified Delaware formula, researchers calculated the size of the abstention gap, which measures the extent to which vote percentages are reduced when abstentions are counted.

    The analysis finds that during that 11-year period 63 shareholder-sponsored proposals received a true majority, or a 50 percent or higher vote, using the simple-majority formula, but that these votes were deemed as failing under the modified Delaware formula. Of the 63 true-majority votes, more than 60 percent had an abstention gap exceeding 2 percent. In the same period, vote tallies on 73 shareholder proposals were reduced by more than 10 percent and 357 were reduced by more than 5 percent.

    Additional findings not included in the Investor Voice report show that true-majority votes for shareholder proposals were dismissed as failing 7.6 times more often than for management proposals: 1 percent versus 0.13 percent. And the average ‘abstention gap’ on shareholder-sponsored items was 69.7 percent higher than on management-sponsored items: 1.29 percent versus 0.76 percent.

    These votes become public at companies’ annual shareholder meetings. Bruce Herbert, chief executive of Investor Voice, says he’s heard only of companies reporting their own counts at these meetings, not the simple-majority count mandated by the SEC to determine whether a proposal is eligible for resubmission in the following year’s proxy.

    ‘That dismisses the real interest in a topic,’ he says. ‘It provides a bad flow of information to shareholders and the press. The press gets misled into thinking shareholders didn’t receive a majority vote, that [the vote] failed, because that’s almost universally the language you hear.’ Nobody takes a closer look two days later to realize that certain votes didn’t fail when calculated in the way proxy reporting services do it, and articles in the press certainly aren’t updated to reflect closer examination, he adds.

    Timothy Smith, director of ESG shareholder engagement at Walden Asset Management in Boston, which has co-filed with Investor Voice resolutions on vote-counting at various companies, says that far from being a debate about numbers, this is part of a larger effort by the US Chamber of Commerce and the Manhattan Institute to paint all proponents of shareholder proposals as special interest groups such as trade unions and downplay broader interest in these proposals.

    ‘From our point of view, that’s just an insulting attack when you’re doing this to enhance shareholder value,’ Smith says.

    Given that Corporate Secretary’s annual Corporate Governance Awards include two awards for best proxy statement (according to market cap), I asked our judges whether they had any thoughts on companies counting abstentions in their vote tallies. One replied that ‘companies do not pick voting standards based on whether or not abstentions are counted. Also, the standards are applied fairly across all of the ballot items if abstentions count as against votes, that may be less favorable for shareholder proposals, but it is equally as unfavorable for say-on-pay votes and equity plans.’

    Herbert disagrees, saying you only have to look at management-sponsored proposal #1 – board elections – to see that isn’t true. ‘I’ve never seen a company count abstentions on that: it creates the strongest impression of support for management slates of directors,’ he says. The fact that shareholder proposals are allotted only 500 words or fewer in proxies, and management is free to exclude the name of the shareholder, while there’s no limit placed on the length of management’s statement of opposition to a shareholder proposal, turns the proxy into a kind of ‘bully pulpit’ for management, which can be fairly sure its proposals will pass, he adds.

    Because you can’t know what voter intent is, it’s unfair to cast every abstention as if it were following management’s recommendation against a shareholder proposal, Herbert says. ‘I have yet to hear any rationale for why that is good governance.’

    To the assertion by companies that because the vote isn’t binding, counting abstentions doesn’t matter, Herbert counters that companies’ efforts to continue doing it that way suggest it must matter to them. ‘Challenges at the SEC, trying to strike these items [from] the proxy, writing statements in opposition, refusing to consider any changes to their policies’ – these all suggest companies are doing all they can to limit the impact of shareholders proposals.

    Email your thoughts, comments or suggestions to:

    David Bogoslaw
    Editor
    Corporate Secretary
    Follow us on Twitter @corpsecmag

  2. James McRitchie March 20, 2015 at 8:21 am #

    And there was this in the March 20, 2015 edition of the Global Proxy Watch http://proxywatch.com

    Vote Counts: In the past decade 63 US shareowner resolutions failed because the issuer counted abstentions, lifting the total and hence the hurdle for yes votes to hit a majority, finds an analysis of AGM voting at the S&P 500 and the Russell 3000 published Tuesday by Investor Voice, a Seattle shareowner engagement firm. In 25 AGMs abstentions were just 2% of the vote. A 2013 study commissioned by CalPERS found that only 48% of the S&P 500 and Russell 1000 counted votes using a simple majority that excludes abstentions. Investor Voice has submitted 37 proposals at 13 issuers in the past six years calling for a simple majority approach, about a third of which have responded positively. “Because it is not possible to discern an abstaining voter’s intent, a process which unilaterally counts all ABSTAIN votes in a single way inevitably acts to disenfranchise certain voters,” argues Investor Voice.

  3. James McRitchie March 20, 2015 at 9:11 pm #

    Why Shareholder Proposals Win More Votes, Lose Anyway By GREGORY J. MILLMAN
    Wall Street Journal

    Governance activists are making progress in their push to change the way companies count votes on shareholder proposals and, other things being equal, this shift should make it easier to pass them. Yet other things aren’t equal, because some major institutional investors, such as Vanguard Group, say they will vote “no” rather than “abstain” on shareholder proposals if companies make the change the activists are seeking.

    http://blogs.wsj.com/riskandcompliance/2015/03/20/why-shareholder-proposals-win-more-votes-lose-anyway/

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