On April 16, 2021, the SEC voted to reopen the comment period on the proposed rules for the use of Universal proxy cards in all non-exempt solicitations for contested director elections. The original rules were proposed on October 16, 2016 (see HERE) with no activity since. However, it is not surprising that the comment period re-opened, and it is not as a result of the new administration. The SEC’s Spring and Fall 2020 semi-annual regulatory agendas and plans for rulemaking both included universal proxies as action items in the final rule stage. Prior to that, the topic had sat in the long-term action category for years.
In light of the several years since the original proposing release, change in corporate governance environment, proliferation of virtual shareholder meetings, and rule amendments related to proxy advisory firms (see HERE) and shareholder proposals in the proxy process (see HERE), the SEC believed it prudent to re-open a public comment period. In addition, the SEC including additional questions for public input in its re-opening release.
Each state’s corporate law provides for the election of directors by shareholders and the holding of an annual meeting for such purpose. Companies subject to the reporting requirements of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 (“Exchange Act”), must comply with Section 14 of the Exchange Act, which sets forth the federal proxy rules and regulations. While state law may dictate that shareholders have the right to elect directors, the minimum and maximum time allowed for notice of shareholder meetings, and what matters may be properly considered by shareholders at an annual meeting, Section 14 and the rules promulgated thereunder govern the proxy process itself for publicly reporting companies.
Currently where there is a contested election of directors, shareholders are likely receive two separate and competing proxy cards from the company and the opposition. Each card generally only contains the directors supported by the sender of the proxy – i.e., all the company’s director picks on one card and all the opposition’s director picks on the other card. A shareholder that wants to vote for some directors on each of the cards, cannot currently do so using a proxy card. The voting process would only allow the shareholder to return one of the cards as valid. If both were returned, the second would cancel out and replace the first under state corporate law.
Although the current proxy rules do allow for all candidates to be listed on a single card, such candidate must agree. Generally, in a contested election the opposing candidates will not agree, presuming it will impede the process for the opposition or have the appearance of an affiliation or support that does not exist. Moreover, neither party is required to include the other’s nominees, and accordingly, even if the director nominees would consent, they are not included for strategic purposes.
Shareholders can always appear in person, or in today’s world – virtually in person, and vote for any directors, whether company or opposition supported, but such appearance is rare and adds an unfair expense to those shareholders. Besides other impediments, where shares are held in a brokerage account in street name, a shareholder desiring to appear in person needs to go through an added process of having a proxy changed from the brokerage firm to their individual name before they will be on the list and allowed to appear and vote in person. Over the years, some large shareholders have taken to sending a representative to meetings so that they could split a vote among directors nominated by a company and those nominated by opposition. To provide the same voting rights to shareholders utilizing a proxy card as they would have in person, the proposed new rule would require the use of a universal proxy card with all nominees listed on a single card.
In 1992 the SEC adopted Rule 14a-4(d)(4), called the “short slate rule,” which allows an opposing group that is only seeking to nominate a minority of the board, to use their returned proxy card, and proxy power, to also vote for the company nominees. The short slate rule has limitations. First, it is granting voting authority to the opposition group who can then use that authority to vote for some or all of company nominees, at their discretion. Second, although a shareholder can give specific instruction on the short slate card as to who of the company nominees they will not vote for, they will still need to review a second set of proxies (i.e., those prepared by the company) to get those names.
In 2013 the SEC Investor Advisory Committee recommended the use of a universal proxy card, and in 2014 the SEC received a rulemaking petition from the Council of Institutional Investors making the same request. As a response, the SEC issued the rule proposal which would require the use of a “universal proxy” card that includes the names of all nominated director candidates.
SEC Proposed Rule
On October 16, 2016, the SEC proposed amendments to the federal proxy rules to require the use of universal proxy cards in connection with contested elections of directors. In particular, the proposed rule would:
- Create new Rule 14a-19 to require the use of universal proxy cards in all non-exempt solicitations in connection with contested director elections. The universal proxy card would not be required where the election of directors is uncontested. There may be cases where shareholder proposals are contested by a company, in which case a shareholder would still receive two proxy cards; however, in such case, all director nominees must be included in each groups proxy cards;
- Revise the consent required of a bona fide director nominee such that a consent for nomination will include the consent to be included in all proxy statements and proxy cards. Clear disclosure distinguishing company and dissident nominees will be required in all proxy statements;
- Eliminate the short slate rule;
- Prescribe certain filing, notice, and solicitation requirements of companies and dissidents when using universal proxy cards;
- Require dissidents to provide companies with notice of intent to solicit proxies in support of nominees other than the company’s nominees, and to provide the names of those nominees. The rule changes specify timing and notice requirements;
- Require dissidents in a contested election subject to new Rule 14a-19 to solicit holders of at least a majority of the voting power of shares entitled to vote on the election of directors;
- Provide for a filing deadline for the dissidents’ definitive proxy statement; and
- Prescribe formatting and other requirements for the universal proxy cards.
The Proposed Rules also include other improvements to the proxy voting process, such as mandating that proxy cards include an “against” voting option when permitted under state laws and requiring disclosure about the effect of a “withhold” vote in an election.
The SEC rule release has a useful chart on the timing of soliciting universal proxy cards:
|Due Date||Action Required|
No later than 60 calendar days before the anniversary of the previous year’s annual meeting date or, if the registrant did not hold an annual meeting during the previous year, or if the date of the meeting has changed by more than 30 calendar days from the previous year, by the later of 60 calendar days prior to the date of the annual meeting or the tenth calendar day following the day on which public announcement of the date of the annual meeting is first made by the registrant. [proposed Rule 14a-19(b)(1)]
Dissident must provide notice to the registrant of its intent to solicit the holders of at least a majority of the voting power of shares entitled to vote on the election of directors in support of director nominees other than the registrant’s nominees and include the names of those nominees.
|No later than 50 calendar days before the anniversary of the previous year’s annual meeting date or, if the registrant did not hold an annual meeting during the previous year, or if the date of the meeting has changed by more than 30 calendar days from the previous year, no later than 50 calendar days prior to the date of the annual meeting. [proposed Rule 14a- 19(d)]||Registrant must notify the dissident of the names of the registrant’s nominees.|
|No later than 20 business days before the record date for the meeting. [current Rule 14a-13]||Registrant must conduct broker searches to determine the number of copies of proxy materials necessary to supply such material to beneficial owners.|
|By the later of 25 calendar days before the meeting date or five calendar days after the registrant files its definitive proxy statement. [proposed Rule 14a-19(a)(2)]||Dissident must file its definitive proxy statement with the Commission.|
The proposed new rules will not apply to companies registered under the Investment Company Act of 1940 or BDC’s but would apply to all other entities subject to the Exchange Act proxy rules, including smaller reporting companies and emerging growth companies.
In its rule release, the SEC discusses the rule oppositions fear that a universal proxy card will give strength to an already bold shareholder activist sector, but notes that “a universal proxy card would better enable shareholders to have their shares voted by proxy for their preferred candidates and eliminate the need for special accommodations to be made for shareholders outside the federal proxy process in order to be able to make such selections.”
Companies have a concern that dissident board representation can be counterproductive and lead to a less effective board of directors due to dissension, loss of collegiality and fewer qualified persons willing to serve. The SEC rule release solicits comments on this point.
Moreover, there is a concern that shareholders could be confused as to which candidates are endorsed by whom, and the effect of the voting process itself. In order to avoid any confusion as to which candidates are endorsed by the company and which by opposition, the SEC is also including amendments that would require a clear distinguishing disclosure on the proxy card. Additional amendments require clear disclosure on the voting options and standards for the election of directors.