Citizens! Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap invites you to be heard!

The “Citizen’s Guide to the Referendum Election” soon will go to press, and Dunlap recently issued a reminder that you’d think would be too good for political activists to refuse.

For a paltry $500, proponents and opponents of the six questions appearing on this fall’s statewide ballot can have a published word – actually, as many as 300 words – with Maine voters on whether to legalize marijuana, increase funding for education, expand firearm background checks, raise the minimum wage, institute ranked-choice voting or approve a $100 million infrastructure bond issue.

Such a deal?

“Not many people take advantage of it,” Dunlap conceded in an interview.

Not many indeed.

By law, the state’s voter guide must accommodate a maximum of three comments for and three against each question on the ballot – meaning this year there’s room for 36 people or organizations to sound off on why this or that question should pass or fail.

As of Wednesday, however, the secretary of state’s Bureau of Corporations, Elections and Commissions had received just one – a plea to vote for Question 2 from Citizens who Support Maine’s Public Schools.

A little background:

The public comment sections in the voter guide have been around since 2006, when the Maine Legislature decided that simply listing the boilerplate information on each referendum wasn’t enough.

Lawmakers agreed that voters needed some context, some guidance, some back-and-forth debate to jump start their critical thinking before they grabbed their ballots and headed into the booths.

Or not.

Of the 42 questions that have appeared on the ballot since 2008, only five have attracted any public comment whatsoever.

That could mean one of two things: Either very few political organizers see much value in making their pitch in the voter guide, which is available before elections at every town hall and public library in Maine, and on the secretary of state’s website.

Or, in this age of Twitter, Facebook, mass emails and other forms of highly targeted, speed-of-light campaigning, many of today’s messaging wunderkinds don’t even know the voter guide exists.

Either way, the secretary of state thinks they’re missing out on a golden opportunity for “the price of a few rolls of stamps.”

“Yeah, this is 500 bucks,” Dunlap said, noting that the money goes to cover printing costs and to “weed out the frivolous ones.”

But in exchange for that money, he continued, “you’re going to reach thousands upon thousands upon thousands of voters. Because people do turn to this. They look for it.”

Go ahead and chuckle. But first answer this question honestly: Before you began reading this, could you rattle off the six questions that you’ll be asked to answer when you head out to vote on Nov. 8?

And since we’re on the subject, when was the last time you stood there in the voting booth, reading and rereading a referendum question and telling yourself, “Geez, I wish I’d taken the time to look into this sooner …”

You’re far from alone.

“Even in the modern information age, there are still people – and plenty of them – they still don’t get a newspaper, they don’t have a television, they don’t have a computer,” Dunlap said. “And they walk into a polling place with absolutely no knowledge of what’s on the ballot.”

And voter guide readers? Also known as the most engaged citizens on Earth?

“They’re looking for the information,” Dunlap noted. “They’re a highly motivated voter. They want to know a little bit more about what’s on the ballot. So they go down to the library, they go down to city hall, they find the voter guide and they start looking at the language and these advocacy pieces that tell them why somebody thinks they should vote for this and why somebody thinks they shouldn’t.”

Better yet, for anyone looking to snag their vote, some voter guide readers peruse the public comments literally seconds before they actually receive their ballots. Can there be a more strategic time to make a strong impression?

The good news, for those average folk with the money and inclination to weigh in – not to mention those highly paid political consultants still asleep at the switch – is that there’s still time.

The Secretary of State’s Office will accept public comments until the end of business on Tuesday. If you’re one of the first three in favor or opposed to whichever question rattles your cage, you’re in.

The rules? Pretty simple.

You must be for or against the question. Nobody wants to waste their precious time on a fence straddler.

You message must be “in plain English.”

That 300-word limit is firm. “Spend some time reading Hemingway,” Dunlap advised. “Learn how to keep things tight.”

Be forewarned that “no grammatical, spelling or textual changes will be made,” so don’t go blaming the secretary of state for your dangling prepositions or mixed metaphors.

That said, your comment cannot contain any “obscene, profane or defamatory language,” “incite or advocate hatred, abuse or violence toward any individual or group,” or “contain any language which may not be circulated through the mails.”

Just out of curiosity, exactly what kind of language “may not be circulated through the mails?”

“I can’t really define what that would mean,” Dunlap replied. “And if I could, you couldn’t print it.”

Finally, be advised that nothing in the rules protects you from criminal or civil liability should your words defame someone or otherwise get you into legal hot water.

Translation: This is a state publication, for crying out loud, not some anonymous internet chat room.

Is it worth it? That’s for you to decide.

But know this: Of the 10 public comments submitted on those five referenda since 2008, eight have turned out to be on the winning side.

Coincidence? Perhaps … or perhaps enough people actually read those mini-treatises and were persuaded.

So go ahead, make a little Maine electoral history. Or at least take pride in knowing you tried.

“As long as it follows the guidelines, I don’t care how coherent it is,” Dunlap said. “That’s their problem.”

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

[email protected]