A few weeks ago, the SEC took an important first step in helping shareholders have more of an impact in annual votes. It announced it intended to get rid of "broker votes" being counted in favor of a management team's incumbent slate.

To explain how this works, take the recent case of Bank of America's ( BAC) annual meeting last month. Most press coverage focused on how a shareholder resolution was passed with a majority (50%) vote that stripped CEO Ken Lewis of also holding the chairman title. However, the truth is that broker votes played a key role in preventing other significant changes from occurring at the same meeting.

Here's how it works: Broker votes are those placed by brokers who hold the stock in the name of their clients. If these brokers don't receive specific instructions on how to vote their shares during proxy season (which happens the vast majority of the time for the vast majority of proxy votes), the brokers can vote them in the manner they see fit. About 99% of the time this means voting the shares in favor of management, artificially raising the perception of how much support there is for management among shareholders.

For Bank of America's vote, the Wall Street Journal calculated that broker votes would account for about 22% of the overall vote. This means that if BofA's vote had been held in 2010 instead of 2009, when broker votes will not be counted towards the election results, the shareholder proposal to separate the chairman and CEO titles would have been 64% instead of 50%. Moreover, based on last month's shareholder results, it's likely two other shareholder propositions would have passed: (1) allowing shareholders to call special meetings to possibly replace members of the board and (2) an advisory vote of executive compensation, or so-called say-on-pay. Two directors, Lewis and Temple Sloan, also would have received enough votes to vote them off the board entirely.

If you liked this article you might like

Toys 'R' Us Store Employees Set for Higher Wages Despite Bankruptcy

Target Expands Next-Day Delivery Program

Target Is Taking on the Big Guys

Cramer: Dominoes Are in Play Today