Federal securities regulators on Wednesday gave companies the authority to deny shareholders access to board-election ballots, a move pension funds and governance advocates say could make corporations less responsive to investors’ interests.

With the lone Democrat on the Securities and Exchange Commission dissenting, the panel voted 3-1 at a public meeting on the shareholder rights issue — one of the most controversial to come before it in recent years, generating more than 34,000 comment letters to the agency.