As Midterms Approach, Notarize Lends a Hand to Absentee Voters in SD

The idea started with online complaints from voters in South Dakota, where applications for absentee ballots require the certification of a notary public.

The response from Pat Kinsel, founder and CEO of a Boston-based online notary startup aptly named Notarize, was to offer its services for free—the same deal it made last year to hurricane-battered residents in Florida, Puerto Rico, and Texas when they learned they needed similar services to file FEMA disaster claims.

“We think everything we do is civically engaged because our service itself is a government service, and voting felt like a good one,” Kinsel says in an interview. “We hope more people vote.”

It’s a commendable goal, although Kinsel surely is also hoping the free service will help generate more attention for Notarize—and revenue from paying customers. Regardless, with the midterm elections fast approaching, Notarize’s free service is an interesting (albeit small) addition to the efforts to ensure a secure and smooth voting process, amid ongoing concerns over Russian manipulation in this next round of elections.

Here’s a bit more on how the service works: Voters in South Dakota can go to the Notarize website and fill out an application for an absentee ballot, Kinsel says. Notarize then queues up a number of identity-authentication questions generated from knowing the last four digits of the person’s social security number, such as “What street did you grow up on?” The system takes a scan of the voter’s driver’s license or passport. Lastly, it connects the voter over a video chat with a certified notary—working from offices in Virginia or Texas—who visually verifies the applicant matches the picture on the ID. Everything is recorded to make for a complete audit trail, Kinsel says.

Notarize launched in 2016 with $2.4 million in seed funding from Boston-based Polaris Partners and Detroit-based Ludlow Ventures. The startup intends to make more efficient the otherwise onerous task of certifying documents for people’s mortgage, building permit, power of attorney, adoption, or name change—“some of the most important transactions of their lives,” Kinsel says.

The South Dakota service has created some buzz with less than two weeks to go before the midterm elections, Kinsel says, including from voting rights organizations and people surprised to hear that they need to spend money on a notary to vote with an absentee ballot. Kinsel did not say how many voters have taken the company up on its offer, but he expects more to take advantage as election day nears.

Notarize currently offers two products. One aims to make a notary available 24/7 to anyone who opens the app or website. The other is a business platform the company sells to banks, construction firms, wealth managers, and law firms to manage the constant need for notaries.

Kinsel says Notarize’s service has led it to offer a completely online mortgage closing service, which the company estimates saves about $1,100 on the average $8,900 closing cost of a mortgage.

In May, Notarize wrapped up a $20 million funding round led by Polaris, which was joined in the deal by Lennar Corporation, Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund, Fifth Wall Ventures, and Second Century Ventures, the venture arm of the National Association of Realtors.

Brian Dowling is a Senior Editor at Xconomy, based in Boston. You can reach him at bdowling [at] xconomy.com. Follow @be_d

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