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Shareholders Turn their Attention on Board Elections: 2006 Proxy Season

The wave of proxy submissions that traditionally heralds the start of a new proxy season has not yet begun. Yet even at this stage at least three proxies containing proposals calling for a majority vote standard to be applied to director elections have been filed with the SEC. Predications are that this number will exceed 100.

The three are:

Analog Devices (Meeting date: March 14, 2006),
Hewlett Packard (Meeting date: March 15, 2006), and
Ciena Corp. (Meeting date: March 15, 2006)

All three of these resolutions were filed by the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America. None of these three companies faced this resolution last year.

Resolutions calling for a majority vote threshold in director elections showed the largest increase in levels of shareholder support from 2004 to 2005.

In 2004 13 such proposals were filed, averaging 11 percent support (counting votes for as a percent of votes for and votes against).

In 2005 60 such proposals were filed, 58 of which came to the vote, with an average support of 44%. Fourteen resolutions achieved majority shareholder support.

Analysis of funds’ voting behaviour as reported in N-PX filings showed a similar increase in support. Whereas in 2004 almost no funds supported resolutions calling for the majority vote threshold to be applied to director elections, in 2005 the 45 fund families studied supported this resolution 60 percent of the time, and many supported all such resolutions across their portfolio companies (most notably, the SRI funds).

However, this is not the only way in which shareholders are attempting to pry open the boardroom doors. So far this season two resolutions requiring cumulative voting in director elections have been published in early proxy filings by Tri-Continental Corp. (Meeting date: May 4, 2006 ) and WGL Holdings (Meeting date: March 1, 2006)

And at least two proxies published so far this season contain resolutions calling for declassification of the board: Analogic Corp (Meeting date: January 27,2006) and Span America Medical Systems (Meeting date: February 28, 2006)

In fact these three types of proposals (majority vote threshold for director elections, cumulative voting in director elections and declassification of the board) may be seen as part of a broader strategy by shareholders to achieve, in a limited way, what was lost when the SEC dropped the ball on the proposed ‘Proxy Access Rule’.

This rule, initially proposed in draft form in October 2003, gave shareholders a glimmer to hope for achieving some say in board elections, albeit very limited. When the SEC failed to proceed with implementing this rule in 2004 shareholders had already started to dream of promoting board candidates who would truly represented their interests.

While majority voting in director elections gives shareholders limited power to keep certain nominees off the board, it does not allow shareholders to actually nominate their own candidates.

In 2005 proposals at Alaska Air Group and Nortel Networks called for shareholder say in proposing board candidates. In a high profile case, AFSCME filed a lawsuit against American International Group for excluding from its proxy a resolution that would have required the company to allow shareholders to nominate directors (see: Majority-Vote Director Election Shareowner Resolutions To Top 100, Dominate Proxy Season.

Perhaps this season will see more such resolutions. Perhaps companies will attempt to deter this type of shareholder action by adopting the less threatening majority vote rule, as many already have.

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