It happens like clockwork every election cycle: About two weeks before Election Day, slate mailers start turning up in the mailbox.

We started getting phone calls about them last week, and the first letters to the editor arrived this week.

You might get “Your Democratic Voter Guide” or “Your Republican Voter Guide.” If you’re registered decline to state, it will probably be “Your Independent Voter Guide.” Other slates purport to represent law enforcement, seniors or other interest groups (affinity groups if you want to use marketing jargon). They list candidates and may include photos or text that appears to be an endorsement. But they’re not what they seem.

Despite the semi-official names, almost all of the slates are produced by private companies. And what they have in common is that candidates paid to be there. So did the backers (or opponents) of ballot measures listed on the slates. If two candidates or both sides of a ballot measure want to be included, there’s an auction, and the top bidder wins.

Did I mention, slates are a lucrative business for the companies that produce them?

Under state law, anyone who paid must be marked with an asterisk And there must be a disclaimer, although it’s generally in type so small and so well hidden that many people don’t see it. If you think that’s coincidental, I’d like to sell you a bridge.

They’re great for lining birdcages, but I wouldn’t rely on them for anything else.

— Jim Sweeney