I prize the work of legendary investor Benjamin Graham for many reasons. But of all the things I've learned from his work, the most important is this: If you have stock, you're an owner. And owners have both rights and responsibilities.

We're coming into that time of year when owners will have their chance to make an impact on the companies in which they have an interest. How? Through the annual proxy process that concludes with the annual meeting of shareholders.

Proxies are typically 20-30 pages long and describe major corporate initiatives that require shareholder approval, such as the appointment of new directors to the board or a revision to the executive compensation plan. If you own shares, you'll typically get a ballot mailed with your proxy, describing what you're voting on and how executives want you to vote your shares. Each share usually counts as one vote. Initiatives are discussed and votes are tallied at the annual meeting. Don't like the compensation plan? Vote your shares against it. Don't like the way the board is running things? Vote your shares against the candidates up for election.

It used to be quite rare to see investors break with management. No longer. Last year there was a flurry of shareholder proposals to expense stock options. At Disney (NYSE:DIS), CEO Michael Eisner's unpopularity cost him his board seat when 43% of shareholders withheld approval of him. He was subsequently stripped of his chairmanship.

The activism continues this year. For example, today's Denver Post reports that Omega Advisors and six other investment firms that, combined, hold roughly 65 million MCI (NASDAQ:MCIP) shares (20% of the company) will withhold votes for directors who are up for election at Monday's annual meeting. The protest is apparently the result of MCI's decision to snub a richer offer from Qwest (NYSE:Q) in order to merge with Verizon (NYSE:VZ). Whether or not you think this group is right, one thing is for sure: It's a startling display of active ownership. And that's a good thing.

Corporate crooks tend to take from the till when the owners aren't watching the store. Don't let that happen with the companies you own. Get out and vote, and encourage your fellow Fools to do the same.

Other firms planning annual meetings soon:

  • Southwest Airlines (NYSE:LUV) will broadcast its meeting over the Web on May 18.
  • Helen of Troy (NASDAQ:HELE), which yesterday announced mixed earnings and disappointing guidance, will gather in El Paso, Texas, on July 12.
  • Barnes & Noble (NYSE:BKS) will hold its meeting at the downtown Manhattan Barnes & Noble on June 1.

Fool contributor Tim Beyers plans to attend an annual meeting someday soon. Till then, he'll keep voting his proxies. Tim owns shares of Barnes & Noble. You can find out what else in his portfolio by checking Tim's Fool profile, which is here. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.