It's easy to throw away the proxy voting materials we receive each year with our companies' annual reports. After all, what difference will our puny vote make? Think of a company such as Starbucks (NASDAQ:SBUX), for example. It has more than 700 million shares outstanding. If you own 100 shares -- heck, if you own 700 shares -- you still own less than a millionth of the company.

Reconsider your abstention, though. For one thing, though there are plans afoot to change this, traditionally, votes not cast by you end up cast in favor of management positions. So if you think you're withholding your vote, it may end up supporting management and helping to defeat a shareholder proposal. You should also know that our votes do count -- because they add up. Consider Home Depot. As of March, it sported about 1,350,000 shareholders and about 1.7 billion shares. Hypothetically, if 335,000 of the shareholders (roughly 25% of them) each own 200 shares and vote, that would represent 67 million shares, or 4% of all shares. That might not seem like much, but some votes on shareholder proposals and other matters have been close. Small-investor voting can make a difference.

Results roundup
It can be inspiring to see just what can be accomplished when shareholders cast their votes. In some cases, desired changes fall short of winning enough support, but they can garner more support in the following years and ultimately pass. The past year was a record-setting one, with hundreds of shareholder proposals and resolutions filed, many focused on topics such as climate change and better governance. Check out just a few recent results from shareholder agitation:

  • A third of shareholder votes supported a request that ConocoPhillips (NYSE:COP) assess the environmental impact of its Canadian tar-sands operations.
  • Best Buy (NYSE:BBY) was encouraged by a shareholder proposal to increase its commitment to recycling. The company now takes back electronic items for recycling at all its locations.
  • Kraft (NYSE:KFT) and McDonald's (NYSE:MCD) were petitioned to address the use of nanomaterials in foods and packaging and are now working with activist groups to develop industry standards.
  • Whole Foods (NASDAQ:WFMI) and Sunoco (NYSE:SUN) agreed to limit their use of the chemical bisphenol A (BPA), a component of plastics that can be harmful to humans.

And another thing ...
If this isn't enough to inspire you to vote your conscience, consider this: Most large companies are largely owned by mutual funds. And these funds get to vote, according to the number of shares they own. The fund managers can benefit from your vote as it gives them an idea of what the general shareholder sentiment is. It could be that in a following year, they vote as you did, partly inspired by you.

Know, too, that you can check up on how various funds are voting -- and you can let the managers of the funds you own know how you feel. You may control only a few shares of a company in your brokerage account, but you may be a shareholder in a fund that owns a huge chunk of a company, and your voice could make a difference. Various T. Rowe Price funds own a total of more than 7% of both Whole Foods and Sunoco, for example, and Fidelity's Contrafund alone owns nearly 2% of McDonald's.

So don't throw away the next proxy form you receive -- vote!

One CEO is out to save capitalism. Find out who and how he'll do it, from the Fool's Alyce Lomax.

Longtime Fool contributor Selena Maranjian owns shares of Home Depot, McDonald's, and Starbucks. Best Buy, Starbucks, and Whole Foods are Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendations. Best Buy, Home Depot, and Starbucks are Motley Fool Inside Value recommendations. The Fool owns shares of Best Buy and Starbucks. Try any of our investing newsletters free for 30 days. The Motley Fool is Fools writing for Fools.