February 16, 2023, Covington Alert
The 2023 proxy season is underway for public companies and their investors. Corporate secretaries, lawyers, and executives are actively engaged in the SEC’s shareholder proposal process. Consistent with recent proxy seasons, a significant number of companies are receiving proposals calling for new or enhanced political disclosures. Although these proposals have been around for some time, recent contentious election cycles, debate over hot-button issues, including the Supreme Court’s 2022 decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, and increased investor focus on ESG matters (as well as criticism of such focus) have cast an ever-increasing focus on disclosure of corporate political expenditures.
Effectively responding to shareholder proposals on this issue is essential. Although shareholder proposals are non-binding, proposals that are approved – or that fail but with a substantial level of support – will give rise to an expectation that the company will address the subject matter of the proposal in the months following the annual meeting. A company’s failure to act on a shareholder proposal that is approved or that receives strong support can result in reputational damage to the company and could signal to shareholders and proxy advisory firms that the board is not responsive to a matter of significant shareholder concern. This can give rise to further shareholder proposals and potential votes against some or all of the company’s directors at the next annual meeting. In some circumstances, failure to effectively respond to a shareholder proposal could lead activist investors to threaten or initiate a proxy contest in advance of the next annual meeting.
In recent years, shareholders have submitted hundreds of proposals aimed at encouraging companies to voluntarily disclose more information on their websites with regard to their corporate political spending and processes. In Covington’s 2015 guide on “Responding to Corporate Political Disclosure Initiatives,” we noted that “although some have argued that these efforts are primarily intended to force companies to scale back their lobbying and political activities—not to promote transparency—they continue unabated.” The pace and breadth of these proposals has expanded in the ensuing years, with a significant number of shareholder proposals focused on two topics—political contributions and lobbying expenditures. According to the Center for Political Accountability (“CPA”), its model political disclosure resolution was used 22 times each in the 2021 and 2022 proxy seasons, resulting in six votes in excess of 50 percent in 2021 and two in 2022. We expect, and have begun to see, a similar number of politically-focused shareholder proposals this proxy season. As of December 2022, for example, CPA reported that its shareholder partners have “filed 25 proposals in the 2023 proxy season, with more expected over the coming months.”