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Petition Clear: a mobile app designed to automatically verify petition signatures

By Michael Reingold


1. Executive Summary


Petition Clear is a mobile app designed to automatically verify petition signatures with integrated AI linked to voter signature databases. This app is for candidates, political parties, and election officials who need accurate, verified petition signatures. Petition Clear offers instant signature verification so that (1) candidates are not disqualified from the ballot and (2) election officials save resources and reduce costly litigation. Through fixed-fee and subscription-based revenue streams, Petition Clear retains profitability while leveraging key resources to develop and promote our app to electoral stakeholders. Petition Clear solves the problem of fraudulent petition signatures and speeds up the balloting process for candidates and election officials across the country.


2. Problems to Be Addressed


Candidates at all levels of government must qualify for a ballot. Candidates and election officials have the same goal — placing all qualified candidates on the ballot for voters to elect or oppose. The process for qualifying, however, is needlessly tedious and, notably, leads to costly litigation. Petition signatures are a messy business — literally. Petition signatures take all different forms and shapes. Election officials currently manually verify each individual signature, which leads to inaccuracies. Election officials can only do so much to verify petition signatures, and candidates often resort to expensive signature collection methods, especially for large statewide races.

Candidates often rely on paid or unpaid petition canvassers to acquire signatures and ensure those signatures are valid. Petition canvassers earn $20 per signature ‘unverified,’ which means that the petition canvasser does not have to take any effort (looking at a photo I.D. or other form of verification) to verify the person and signature match. Election officials use internal signature databases to verify the signatures (like Department of Motor Vehicles or Secretary of State signature files), or simply use sight and intuition based on signature markings and patterns. Each of these processes are unnecessarily timely and costly, and neither add value to the election process nor create confidence in ballot access.


Notably, manual petition signature verification often results in litigation. Such litigation delays candidates’ campaigns, and election litigation is often fast paced. Attorneys require large retainers for a couple weeks of intense litigation that require candidates to quickly fundraise to pay those legal fees, rather than mobilizing voters. In Michigan, for example, fake signatures proved costly for several gubernational candidates, and those who lost their emergency appeals did not make the ballot for the 2022 primary. [1] Many of these candidates relied on expensive, outside canvassing companies that provided bogus signatures to collect a quick, expensive buck. [2] Election officials, luckily, caught the sham signatures through manual, random quality control measures. But these signatures could have easily been approved.

Importantly, election officials must be part of the solution. Election officials receive petition signatures en masse and must manually verify signatures through intuition or government signature databases. Often, only samples of the signatures are examined and determinative of a candidate’s success in making the ballot. Several inaccuracies are possible, or even worse, missed fraudulent signatures slip through the cracks. Thus, election officials are also key to changing how petition signatures are verified so that manual processes end.


Additional problems may exist with the current manual verification process. Interviewing candidates and election officials is essential to fully understand how petition signature verification should best operate. Candidate and election official buy-in is important to resolving this complex administrative problem. A solution will likely start with ‘lower-value’ elections like school boards or small ballot propositions like a city plastic bag tax. A solution must also meet the needs of several customers — candidates, political parties, and election officials — while maintaining an approachable and user-friendly application for voters. Thus, starting to solve the problem at a small, local level will determine the solution’s scalability.


3. Our Solution


The solution is simple: Automatic verification of ballot petition signatures. Petition Clear is a mobile app designed to automatically verify petition signatures with integrated AI linked to voter signature databases. Petition canvassers simply take a photo of the signature, and the application will match and verify the signature to the voter’s filed signature. These results are sent live to the candidates and election officials. Once the candidate has reached the petition signature threshold, election officials are notified and may approve the candidate for the ballot.


Petition Clear’s value proposition is to provide instant, verified petition signatures to candidates and election officials so that costly, time-consuming litigation does not ensue from ineffective manual verification procedures. Ultimately, Petition Clear’s goal is to provide justice to voters who desire to vote for certain candidates and are disenfranchised from administrative hurdles outside of their control. Automating the verification process is a clean and straightforward approach to removing fraudulent signatures from the ballot process.

Petition Clear’s solution is successful when candidates access the ballot without the barrier of unverified signatures. Candidates and political parties know how to run their campaigns and mobilize voters, but candidates may cease to operate for failing to meet petition signature requirements. Candidate success is imperative for Petition Clear’s mission because Petition Clear’s is firstly candidate centered. Similarly, election officials’ success is crucial. Petition Clear modernizes antiquated election bureau processes for verifying petition signatures. Election officials with Petition Clear will print ballots quicker and increase planning time for Election Day and absentee voting rather than devoting resources and time to manually verifying petition signatures.


4. Business Discussion


A. Desirability (Market Fit)

Last year, several Michigan gubernational candidates were kicked off the primary ballot because of fraudulent signatures. [3] Petition canvassers collected unverified signatures, and campaigns paid about $15-30 per unverified signature. [4] Even if petition canvassers collected only ‘verified’ signatures, there remains room for invalid signatures to make petitions. Often, canvassers simply ask in good faith if the voter is eligible to sign the petition.


Unfortunately, invalid signatures result in costly litigation that occurs on an expedited basis because (1) most state supreme courts have original jurisdiction and (2) filing deadlines are extremely close to ballot print and distribution deadlines. From my personal experience in election law litigation, most retainers range from $10,000 to $30,000 for petition signature litigation because of the expedited nature and the appellate expertise required to brief state supreme courts.


Candidates, political parties, and election officials must cut out expensive waste from their operations so that each can devote more resources to campaigning or administering voting. Additionally, elections have become increasingly nationalized, which leads to negative press reports and conspiracies even for minor inaccuracies. Candidates, political parties, and election officials should quickly adopt Petition Clear because it eliminates the manual labor involved with verifying signatures, which is ineffective. Candidates, political parties, and election officials should leverage AI-based apps that automate any wasteful, administrative tasks to remain more easily compliant with statutory obligations. Each customer will shift to Petition Clear because of its ease of use and smart, real-time solution to verifying petition signatures through integrated AI. Additionally, there are no known competitors in the market. Others have not entered this market because either (1) the technology to automatically verify petition signatures has not existed, or (2) there are several regulations surrounding this area of the market. This is an opportunity, however, to get ahead of a potentially emerging market as elections are continuously scrutinized worldwide.


Candidates, political parties, and election officials do not want costly litigation throughout campaigning or administering voting. This fuels the fire for opposition or election deniers to discount candidates, political parties, and election officials, which hurts qualified candidates from making the ballot. Until recently, technology for automatically verifying petition signatures has not existed; thus, apps like Petition Clear have not emerged. Additionally, election cycles are cyclical, and ebb and flow based on the year. First, launching Petition Clear and acquiring customers during an off-year election is important to attracting and retaining candidates, political parties, and election officials when the barrier to entry is relatively low. Then, once a customer base is created, the following year is either a midterm or general election year where customer acquisition can increase substantially. Lastly, customer retention becomes key because candidates, political parties, and election officials must realize Petition Clear’s value. Continual relationship building with our customers through app and process improvement is important for retaining a continuous revenue stream and scaling the app for multiple election markets across the country.


B. Feasibility (Plus Compliance & Risks)

Petition Clear’s team must meet the technological, regulatory, and customer demands of automating the petition verification process. First, app developers for technological development is the largest upfront cost required for Petition Clear. This will require app developers with expertise in creating mobile apps with secure AI integration. Petition Clear will likely operate like a mobile banking app with check deposit software. The difference is our app will need to verify across multiple databases and voter files. App developers also remain critical for app operation and maintenance (O&M) when it is deployed for use with canvassers, candidates, political parties, and election officials. Fortunately, Petition Clear app developers will not need to create signature databases because each individual election bureau will have a collection of signatures on file.


Integrating voter databases with Petition Clear is an important part of the solution. Basic voter information is public through voter rolls; however, accessing the voter’s signature is likely private in most states. So, basic voter information like names and addresses are verified easily with voters typing in their name and address into the app. It would be helpful, however, to have the government as a customer so Petition Clear has full access to signature files. If the government is not a customer, then it is likely that governments will need to send consent forms to voters to have their signatures released. This could also occur at the moment of verification with the app, and voters may consent to have their signature file used for the AI verification process.


Petition Clear will also continuously engage in regulatory compliance. While most voter information is public, there are several security measures that our app will have to protect like sensitive government, political party, and candidate information and databases. As Petition Clear grows, more attorneys, like app developers, will join our regulatory compliance team. Election regulations change frequently. Our attorneys will work with our app developers to make necessary technological changes to meet these changing regulatory schemes. Further, Petition Clear’s attorneys may provide guidance and legal information to candidates, political parties, and election officials about proper uses of the app and best practices to remain compliant. For the first fiscal year, however, I will act as the sole attorney until there is consistent revenue to support additional attorneys.


Lastly, sales and customer support (broken externally as ‘service excellence’ and ‘customer experience’) is vital for training candidates, political parties, and election officials on how to properly use Petition Clear. Candidates are also welcome to invite canvassers into the training process rather than secondhand training from the campaigns. The sales and customer support team will also generate new business after the first fiscal year and provide customer support for ongoing app development needs while maintaining key relationships with customers. Ideally, receiving customer feedback early and mitigating problems when they occur lower future risks.


C. Viability (Profitability)

Petition Clear’s primary revenue streams are from three sources: (1) government fixed-fee contracts, (2) political party annual subscriptions, and (3) candidate committee fixed-fee contracts. For FY2023, Petition Clear’s focus is app and user experience development and testing. As such, a traditional business loan is necessary to get Petition Clear up and running. Additionally, fundraising and investor funding is important to defray additional costs incurred for app development and testing. Thus, revenue from Petition Clear’s three primary sources will not begin until FY2024.


Petition Clear will collect fee and subscription-based revenue in FY2024. Governments tend to expect fixed-fee, low cost contracts with private vendors because government then know upfront the cost of the services. [5] A fixed-fee contract is for one year to start, but governments may elect for longer contract periods with options. The Financial Forecast in Section 9, however, only considers one year contracts in case of fluctuation of government demand and need. The $50,000 fixed-fee rate is a start point to set up government relationships and allows for potential increases in price as demand grows.


Next, political parties may purchase annual subscriptions that can fluctuate based on demand and election cycles. Political parties, even local political parties, continuously fundraise and can support a monthly subscription model tied to an annual contract. The subscription model for political parties will help with consistent cash flow rather than just fixed-fee contracts paid in a lump sum or installments. The average starting litigation retainer for a petition signature issue is between $10,000-$20,000. Political parties have multiple candidates that could expose them to legal liability depending on campaign fund sharing agreements. A $5,000 month subscription is a discount compared to the potential litigation cost of helping fund the bill for multiple candidates’ legal expenses. The $5,000 a month is the base rate, and, after a certain number of candidates on Petition Clear, the rate per month increases. Like the petition signature case in Michigan, multiple candidates often use the same canvassing services, and a few invalid signatures can have a domino effect for multiple campaigns and political parties.


Lastly, certain candidates are not affiliated with political parties (like elected judges or school board members). Often these candidates have longer terms or less campaign funds; thus, a subscription model is impractical. So, Petition Clear provides for individual candidate committees fixed-fee contracts priced at the same $5,000 rate as political parties, but as a lump sum payment or in installments.


5. Proof of Concept (Early Testing Plan)


Petition Clear’s preliminary testing ensures our app is successful and works each time a voter provides their information and signature. One large assumption is that the app works every time a voter completes the verification process, and that the automatic verification is accurate. Several rounds of early testing and prototyping ensures that our app works in different environments and with different users. Notably, Petition Clear will be accessible to voters with differing abilities (with read aloud options available). Early testing for any voter, canvasser, candidate, political party, or election official must be a part of any proof of concept.


Additionally, every voter signature file system in a locality or state may look differently. Our app must adapt to these different file systems. Thus, early testing with the locality or state is important to meet the specific needs of each database. Otherwise, Petition Clear’s software will not be customizable enough to meet different verification methods. Verification for one locality may look different than another locality and a cookie-cutter approach simply will not work.


6. Process Improvement Plan


Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) should be integrated with each fixed-fee contract or subscription. These KPIs create accountability for Petition Clear’s fiscal wellbeing and customer centered approach. Additionally, each of our customers should have access to KPIs/data relevant to their needs to track the success and value Petition Clear continuously delivers.


Example KPIs to measure our app’s success:

  • Number of signatures the app incorrectly verified based on human verification during early testing with each customer.

  • Timeliness of technical issues resolved.

  • Number of voter files accessed per ballot petition.

  • Timeliness of integration with a locality’s voter database.


Example KPIs to measure regulatory compliance and customer experience:

  • Number of regulatory-based updates and missed regulations.

  • Number of complaints resolved.

  • Timeliness of complaints resolved.

  • Number of training session held per customer.


Example KPIs to measure revenue and costs:

  • Number of new revenue streams generated.

  • Number of cost-cutting initiatives to lessen waste.

  • Percent reliance on fundraising and investor funding.

  • Evaluating variable costs associated with O&M and incidental expenses.


7. Technology Plan


Petition Clear leverages AI and mobile app technology to automate the petition signature verification process. Petition Clear may rely on existing technology for the picture taking capability. For example, the technology used for taking a picture of a check for mobile deposit in a banking account and then linking it with the account. AI, however, will be an important new piece for Petition Clear because our technology will need to match the voter file and recognize and authenticate the signature. Some of this AI technology likely exists, but some of it will need to be developed further by our in-house developers. Additionally, if the AI technology does exist, there will be fees associated with acquiring this technology. These fees are accounted for in the Financial Forecast. Lastly, Petition Clear O&M is important for software updates and to continuously secure customer databases from external devices.


8. Marketing Plan


First, Petition Clear will have direct face-to-face conversations with candidates, political parties, and election officials. This allows Petition Clear to demonstrate our app to customers and to create personal connections. These connections are important so that candidates and political parties can refer other candidates and political parties to Petition Clear and communicate the value of automating their petition signature verification process. Second, most governments require a request for proposal (RFP) process when entering a fixed-fee contract with a private vendor. So, Petition Clear will likely be a part of a RFP process that presents our value, solution, and pricing to governments. Some of our pricing may change based on government demand, budgets, or cost analysis. Highlighting our value, however, is essential to securing a fair price, even with budget-constrained governments. Lastly, app demonstrations are key to marketing Petition Clear. Showing potential customers how Petition Clear operates and the value that automation brings to ballot petitions is important in direct meetings and RFPs.


Buy-in from both sides of the equation — government and candidates/political parties — is important for Petition Clear’s success. Facilitating conversations with governments and political parties (as a direct route to most candidates) early is crucial. Marketing to individual candidates would be time consuming and costly considering the number and volume of candidates per election cycle. Political parties, however, can reach many candidates at once and implement change (with Petition Clear) quickly. During product use, Petition Clear will maintain continuously communication with our customers to ensure the app is working smoothly and accurately. After ballot petitions and signatures are complete, Petition Clear should have a ‘lessons learned’ with each customer to understand best practices and needed app improvements. Lastly, Petition Clear will encourage customers to place our information on their websites to show voters that their campaign or election bureau is powered by Petition Clear. Then, voters will expect to use and trust Petition Clear whenever they are asked to sign a ballot petition.9.


9. Financials (3-year forecast) [6]




Section 4.B Feasibility (Plus Compliance & Risks) provided descriptions of various costs, and Section 4.C Viability (Profitability) provided descriptions of revenue streams. Missing from this discussion, however, are other costs and liabilities. Petition Clear will need an office space to develop, work, and house sensitive information. Thus, the annual market rate for commercial real estate is included. Similarly, every company has incidental expenses or emergency expenses arise, and Petition Clear’s financial forecast anticipates such costs arising. Other liabilities include Petition Clear’s initial business loan with interest and corporate income taxes (may change based on Petition Clear’s corporate organization). The business loan is important to sustaining Petition Clear through FY 2023 and FY 2024 when there is no realized or substantial profit. All profit and remaining income are used to pay off the business loan and interest.


Petition Clear’s financial forecast scales revenue based on the assumption that the company will add three government customers per year and two additional political parties per locality per year (after FY2024). Additionally, independent candidate committees are projected to increase at a similar rate. Petition Clear will realize larger revenue streams and real profit starting in FY2025 even while costs grow with increased staffing and O&M demand. Lastly, fundraising and investor funding will need to remain consistent as Petition Clear becomes more self-sufficient with fixed-fee contracts and subscriptions materializing.


10. Conclusion

Petition Clear’s value proposition is to provide instant, verified petition signatures to candidates, political parties, and election officials so that costly, time-consuming litigation does not ensue from ineffective, costly, and inaccurate manual verification. Through a fixed-fee and subscription-based business model, Petition Clear retains profitability while leveraging key resources to develop and promote our app to targeted customers. Ultimately, Petition Clear’s goal is to provide justice to voters who desire to vote for certain candidates and are disenfranchised from administrative hurdles outside of their control. Automating the verification process is a clean, cost effective, and straightforward approach to removing fraudulent signatures from the ballot process.


11. Post-Script: Comments on GPT Use


No part of this business plan was generated using ChatGPT. I decided not to use ChatGPT because I wanted to draft my own business plan without the use of generative AI technology. From using ChatGPT in other contexts, I have realized the answers it generates are not always accurate or in the voice that I am looking to convey.

For this business plan, however, I used an AI tool called BrandCrowd to create the Petition Clear logo (see page i).[7] This AI tool asks the user to input natural language key terms to reflect and describe the logo the user wants to generate. Once those words and the company name are keyed in, the AI generates several potential logos based on those key terms. For this business plan, I put in the terms “election,” “verify,” “ballot,” and “candidate” along with the name of my company “Petition Clear.” The AI tool generated several logos, which mainly incorporated the American flag in several ways. I specifically looked for a logo that indicated the ‘verification’ part of Petition Clear’s solution. I thought that the American flags were too generic and better used in a candidate's campaign. The light blue color with a check mark shows customers precisely Petition Clear’s purpose of simple and accurate verification. Lastly, this AI logo tool was helpful for thinking about how I wanted Petition Clear to be represented as a company: A clean and simple automatic verification app.

 

Notes:

[1] Neil Vigdor, Five G.O.P. Candidates for Michigan Governor are Ruled Ineligible Over Forged Petition Signatures, N.Y. TIMES (May 26, 2022), https://www.nytimes.com/2022/05/26/us/politics/michigan-republicans-governor-signatures.html; AP, Two Michigan Gubernatorial Candidates Lose Final Appeals and Will Remain Off Ballot After Phony Petition Signatures, CBS NEWS (June 4, 2022), https://www.cbsnews.com/news/michigan-governors-race-forged-petition-signatures-perry-johnson-michael-markey/.

[2] Ashley Lopez, The Price of a Ballot Signature is Way Up, and Experts Worry it’s Encouraging Fraud, NPR (Apr. 6, 2023), https://www.npr.org/2023/04/06/1168223451/ballot-signature-petition-canvassing-fraud-michigan.

[3] See N.Y. TIMES & CBS NEWS, supra note 1.

[4] See NPR, supra note 2.

[5] See FAR 16.306 (2023), https://www.acquisition.gov/far/16.306.

[6] The following sources were used to calculate some of the costs: How Much Does it Cost to Develop an App in 2023? Cost Breakdown, SPD LOAD (2023), https://spdload.com/blog/app-development-cost/; App Development Cost Calculator, SPD LOAD (2023), https://spdload.com/startup-resFo&ources/app-development-cost-calculator/; How Much Does it Cost to Maintain an App in 2023?, MOBILE APP DAILY (May 1, 2023), https://www.mobileappdaily.com/cost-to-maintain-an-app; Garrett Watson, Combined Federal and State Corporate Income Tax Rates in 2022, TAX FOUND. (Sept. 27, 2022), https://taxfoundation.org/combined-federal-state-corporate-tax-rates-2022/; Corporate Income Tax, MICHIGAN DEP’T OF TREASURY (2023), https://www.michigan.gov/taxes/business-taxes/cit; United States Commercial Property Prices Per Square Foot, NEWSOFFICES.NET (2023), https://offices.net/news/united-states-commercial-property-prices-per-square-foot/; Janet Berry-Johnson, Average Business Loan Interest Rates in 2023, LENDINGTREE (Feb. 28, 2022), https://www.lendingtree.com/business/rates/.

[7] Logo Maker, BRANDCROWD (2023), https://www.brandcrowd.com/logo-maker.

 

About the Author: Michael Reingold (he/him) recently graduated cum laude from Michigan State University College of Law with a Juris Doctorate. Michael is an incoming associate within the government policy and regulatory law group of Dykema Gossett PLLC. Prior to law school, Michael was a proposal specialist for a large government contractor, editor-in-chief of The Cavalier Daily, and interned for federal and local elected officials in the Washington D.C. area. Michael holds a Bachelor of Arts with Distinction from the University of Virginia. In his free time, Michael likes to kayak, paint with friends, and spend time with his two dogs.











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