Teresa Mosqueda used to spend her days asking people to run for office. A union leader and third-generation Mexican-American from Seattle, she figured the most effective way to address working families’ issues was to encourage people who had once experienced them to enter politics. But when people would ask her to run, Mosqueda would decline, citing an obstacle faced by most Americans: she couldn’t afford it.
That changed when she learned about democracy vouchers—a taxpayer-funded program that mails Seattle residents four $25 certificates to donate to local candidates. That meant more people could contribute to local campaigns and more people, like Mosqueda, could run.
Passed in 2015 by a ballot initiative, Seattle’s voucher program was the country’s first of its kind. Asking for big donations is uncomfortable for a lot of candidates, says Mosqueda, now a member of the city council: “I don’t personally know people who have $5,000 to give away.” Now the vouchers mean candidates don’t have to rely on donors with such deep pockets. “You don’t want to feel beholden to wealthy corporations or individuals,” she says.
As Seattle’s past two city council elections show, the program hasn’t stopped the influence of those mega-donors, nor has it radically diversified Seattle’s donor base, which draws mostly from an older white population. But research published in 2019 in the Election Law Journal shows it’s certainly weakened those influences; of voters who donated in Seattle’s 2017 and 2019 elections, voucher users were less wealthy than cash donors.
Now, as Seattle introduces democracy vouchers to its mayoral race, the city aims to further dilute the influence of big donors (Amazon gave $350,000 to help elect the last mayor) by attracting more small ones. And while some other municipalities, like New York and Washington, DC, are trying to democratize campaign finance by matching and multiplying small donations, critics say those programs are far less accessible. “You still have to have your own money to participate,” says Brian McCabe, one of the researchers who led the 2019 study.
Indeed, perhaps the program’s biggest success, according to McCabe and coauthor Jen Heerwig, is the sheer number of donors it’s attracted. Nearly 8% of Seattle’s electorate donated to local candidates in 2019, compared with just 1.3% in 2015. That makes Seattle the national leader in local campaign finance “by a lot,” McCabe says.
A recent poll of over 1,000 voters conducted by HarrisX for the political news site The Hill revealed that 57% believe the US political system works only for insiders with money and power. As Seattle aims to directly encourage campaigns by people without those advantages, a host of other US cities wonder if democracy vouchers are an answer to that problem.
Andrew Allison, founder of the political action committee Austinites for Progressive Reform in the Texas capital, recently collected the 20,000 signatures needed to get a voucher initiative on the ballot in May.
“In Austin, about 70% of donations come from just three of our 10 districts,” says Allison. “And that kind of donor concentration doesn’t really square with the idea of one person, one vote.”
Getting the word out
In 2019, four of nine first-time Seattle city council candidates said they would not have run had it not been for democracy vouchers, according to a 2020 report from BERK Consulting. This year, of the 12 mayoral candidates who were confirmed by early April, eight are accepting vouchers, including Colleen Echohawk.
“I come from a community where we often don’t get to contribute to political campaigns,” says Echohawk, who would be the city’s first Indigenous mayor. “If I could donate, it’d be like $10.”
Echohawk prominently features democracy vouchers on her website and Instagram. But she says many of her followers still have “no idea what the heck they are.”
That may be the program’s biggest flaw; in 2019, fewer than 40,000 Seattle residents—roughly 5% of the population—used their vouchers. Many seem to mistake them for junk mail. Though Seattle residents can opt in to virtual vouchers or request replacements online, most still don’t know the program exists. And even fans of democracy vouchers wonder why all Seattle property owners should pay—albeit just $8 per year—for a program that a slim minority uses.
“If you still have super PACs and private financing available to candidates, I don’t think it’s a good way to get money out of politics,” says Paul Gessing, CEO of the Rio Grande Foundation, who was elated when a proposal for democracy vouchers was defeated in his home city of Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 2019.
In 2017, the Pacific Legal Foundation, a libertarian law firm, sued Seattle, claiming that democracy vouchers violated its freedom of speech by funneling tax dollars to campaigns it didn’t support. But the state’s supreme court upheld the program.
Still, most Americans do favor laws that would limit the role of money in politics, according to a 2018 Pew Report.
Jack Noland, research manager at RepresentUs, a nonprofit working on campaign finance reform, points to several laws that would help do that, including an anticorruption act to stop political bribery. But he says voucher programs aim to transform the entire political process, not just the outcome, by encouraging candidates to reach out to a broader array of constituents.
As proof of the voucher program’s “broad interest,” he points to the For the People Act recently passed by the US House of Representatives. It includes a program that would pilot democracy vouchers for congressional candidates in three states, to be selected by the Federal Election Commission. “Across partisan lines,” Noland says, “there’s this feeling that the system isn’t working as intended and that regular people—be they progressive, independent, conservative—aren’t being represented.”
Julia Hotz is a journalist reporting on what’s working to address social problems.
These robots know when to ask for help
A new training model, dubbed “KnowNo,” aims to address this problem by teaching robots to ask for our help when orders are unclear. At the same time, it ensures they seek clarification only when necessary, minimizing needless back-and-forth. The result is a smart assistant that tries to make sure it understands what you want without bothering you too much.
Andy Zeng, a research scientist at Google DeepMind who helped develop the new technique, says that while robots can be powerful in many specific scenarios, they are often bad at generalized tasks that require common sense.
For example, when asked to bring you a Coke, the robot needs to first understand that it needs to go into the kitchen, look for the refrigerator, and open the fridge door. Conventionally, these smaller substeps had to be manually programmed, because otherwise the robot would not know that people usually keep their drinks in the kitchen.
That’s something large language models (LLMs) could help to fix, because they have a lot of common-sense knowledge baked in, says Zeng.
Now when the robot is asked to bring a Coke, an LLM, which has a generalized understanding of the world, can generate a step-by-step guide for the robot to follow.
The problem with LLMs, though, is that there’s no way to guarantee that their instructions are possible for the robot to execute. Maybe the person doesn’t have a refrigerator in the kitchen, or the fridge door handle is broken. In these situations, robots need to ask humans for help.
KnowNo makes that possible by combining large language models with statistical tools that quantify confidence levels.
When given an ambiguous instruction like “Put the bowl in the microwave,” KnowNo first generates multiple possible next actions using the language model. Then it creates a confidence score predicting the likelihood that each potential choice is the best one.
The Download: inside the first CRISPR treatment, and smarter robots
The news: A new robot training model, dubbed “KnowNo,” aims to teach robots to ask for our help when orders are unclear. At the same time, it ensures they seek clarification only when necessary, minimizing needless back-and-forth. The result is a smart assistant that tries to make sure it understands what you want without bothering you too much.
Why it matters: While robots can be powerful in many specific scenarios, they are often bad at generalized tasks that require common sense. That’s something large language models could help to fix, because they have a lot of common-sense knowledge baked in. Read the full story.
Medical microrobots that travel inside the body are (still) on their way
The human body is a labyrinth of vessels and tubing, full of barriers that are difficult to break through. That poses a serious hurdle for doctors. Illness is often caused by problems that are hard to visualize and difficult to access. But imagine if we could deploy armies of tiny robots into the body to do the job for us. They could break up hard-to-reach clots, deliver drugs to even the most inaccessible tumors, and even help guide embryos toward implantation.
We’ve been hearing about the use of tiny robots in medicine for years, maybe even decades. And they’re still not here. But experts are adamant that medical microbots are finally coming, and that they could be a game changer for a number of serious diseases. Read the full story.
5 things we didn’t put on our 2024 list of 10 Breakthrough Technologies
We haven’t always been right (RIP, Baxter), but we’ve often been early to spot important areas of progress (we put natural-language processing on our very first list in 2001; today this technology underpins large language models and generative AI tools like ChatGPT).
Every year, our reporters and editors nominate technologies that they think deserve a spot, and we spend weeks debating which ones should make the cut. Here are some of the technologies we didn’t pick this time—and why we’ve left them off, for now.
New drugs for Alzheimer’s disease
Alzmeiher’s patients have long lacked treatment options. Several new drugs have now been proved to slow cognitive decline, albeit modestly, by clearing out harmful plaques in the brain. In July, the FDA approved Leqembi by Eisai and Biogen, and Eli Lilly’s donanemab could soon be next. But the drugs come with serious side effects, including brain swelling and bleeding, which can be fatal in some cases. Plus, they’re hard to administer—patients receive doses via an IV and must receive regular MRIs to check for brain swelling. These drawbacks gave us pause.
Sustainable aviation fuel
Alternative jet fuels made from cooking oil, leftover animal fats, or agricultural waste could reduce emissions from flying. They have been in development for years, and scientists are making steady progress, with several recent demonstration flights. But production and use will need to ramp up significantly for these fuels to make a meaningful climate impact. While they do look promising, there wasn’t a key moment or “breakthrough” that merited a spot for sustainable aviation fuels on this year’s list.
One way to counteract global warming could be to release particles into the stratosphere that reflect the sun’s energy and cool the planet. That idea is highly controversial within the scientific community, but a few researchers and companies have begun exploring whether it’s possible by launching a series of small-scale high-flying tests. One such launch prompted Mexico to ban solar geoengineering experiments earlier this year. It’s not really clear where geoengineering will go from here or whether these early efforts will stall out. Amid that uncertainty, we decided to hold off for now.