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Voter Suppression By Proxy

Voter Suppression

Dominic Jones of the Investor Relations Blog sent me a link to ProxyDemocracy.org this morning. We’ve recently seen the power the of the vote in our Presidential elections. We marvel at the power of the community as we vote with our attention and gestures to surface the wisdom of crowds in social media applications. There’s another form of suffrage that is within our reach, but largely ignored. Shareholders have a say in how public corporations are run. One share of stock in a public company gives you a vote.

ProxyDemocracy.org explains it this way:

A company’s stockholders have the legal right to decide important decisions at the companies they own: they elect directors, review aspects of executive compensation, and weigh in on shareholder proposals addressing a variety environmental, social, and governance issues. History has shown that shareholders can use their voting power to create value — both economic and social — at the companies they own.

Whether you invest in mutual funds or individual stocks, you have a say in how things are run. While the recent market crash may have caused you to curse Wall Street and wish a pox on all their houses– if you’d like a say in how our financial institutions are run, a single share of stock gives you the right to vote.

If you’re already a shareholder, are you accepting disenfranchisement? The voting process as it’s currently implemented is a form a voter suppression. Once again, ProxyDemocracy.org:

In practice, it can be hard for investors to exercise their rights and have their voices heard. One important obstacle is information. Shareholders often have a hard time keeping track of when the companies in their portfolio are meeting and what the ballot items mean. Mutual fund owners, whose funds vote on their behalf at the companies in the fund portfolio, rarely know how their funds are voting and thus have no way to be sure that their interests are being represented.

Imagine, for instance, that you’d like a say in the future of the auto manufacturers in Detroit. Perhaps you’d like to have a say in how health insurance and HMOs are run. Now you can certainly vote by choosing to spend or not spend your hard-earned dollars on the products of these corporations. You can stand on a soap box on a street corner and shout at the passing crowd. Or you can buy a single share of stock and express your opinion as a shareholder. Now imagine the power of the swarm, of Twitter, FriendFeed and Facebook.

ProxyDemocracy provides tools to help investors overcome these informational hurdles and use their voting power to produce positive changes in the companies they own. We help shareholders vote their shares by publicizing the intended votes of institutional investors with a track record of shareholder engagement. We help mutual fund investors understand the voting records of leading funds, making it possible for them to purchase funds that represent their interests and pressure those that don’t.

We’ve seen the power of bottom-up democracy, but it’s not only in our government that this approach can be effective. Big corporations and institutional investors will a happily vote for you, and they will vote their own interests.

Clay Shirky talks about the power of organizing without organizations, about the cognitive surplus that we have in abundance today. The tools at our disposal and our expectations have radically changed. Shiky tells this story:

I was having dinner with a group of friends about a month ago, and one of them was talking about sitting with his four-year-old daughter watching a DVD. And in the middle of the movie, apropos nothing, she jumps up off the couch and runs around behind the screen. That seems like a cute moment. Maybe she’s going back there to see if Dora is really back there or whatever. But that wasn’t what she was doing. She started rooting around in the cables. And her dad said, “What you doing?” And she stuck her head out from behind the screen and said, “Looking for the mouse.”

Here’s something four-year-olds know: A screen that ships without a mouse ships broken. Here’s something four-year-olds know: Media that’s targeted at you but doesn’t include you may not be worth sitting still for. Those are things that make me believe that this is a one-way change. Because four year olds, the people who are soaking most deeply in the current environment, who won’t have to go through the trauma that I have to go through of trying to unlearn a childhood spent watching Gilligan’s Island, they just assume that media includes consuming, producing and sharing.

Being a shareholder in a public corporation has been a one-way transaction. The tools to make it a highly visible two-way transaction are now ready to hand. They’re here now. And as you think about the investments you’ve made for your retirement, you should be asking yourself, “where’s the mouse?”

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