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Can “democracy dollars” keep real dollars out of politics?



Can “democracy dollars” keep real dollars out of politics?

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. 

“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.”

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.


This startup’s AI is smart enough to drive different types of vehicles



This startup’s AI is smart enough to drive different types of vehicles

Jay Gierak at Ghost, which is based in Mountain View, California, is impressed by Wayve’s demonstrations and agrees with the company’s overall viewpoint. “The robotics approach is not the right way to do this,” says Gierak.

But he’s not sold on Wayve’s total commitment to deep learning. Instead of a single large model, Ghost trains many hundreds of smaller models, each with a specialism. It then hand codes simple rules that tell the self-driving system which models to use in which situations. (Ghost’s approach is similar to that taken by another AV2.0 firm, Autobrains, based in Israel. But Autobrains uses yet another layer of neural networks to learn the rules.)

According to Volkmar Uhlig, Ghost’s co-founder and CTO, splitting the AI into many smaller pieces, each with specific functions, makes it easier to establish that an autonomous vehicle is safe. “At some point, something will happen,” he says. “And a judge will ask you to point to the code that says: ‘If there’s a person in front of you, you have to brake.’ That piece of code needs to exist.” The code can still be learned, but in a large model like Wayve’s it would be hard to find, says Uhlig.

Still, the two companies are chasing complementary goals: Ghost wants to make consumer vehicles that can drive themselves on freeways; Wayve wants to be the first company to put driverless cars in 100 cities. Wayve is now working with UK grocery giants Asda and Ocado, collecting data from their urban delivery vehicles.

Yet, by many measures, both firms are far behind the market leaders. Cruise and Waymo have racked up hundreds of hours of driving without a human in their cars and already offer robotaxi services to the public in a small number of locations.

“I don’t want to diminish the scale of the challenge ahead of us,” says Hawke. “The AV industry teaches you humility.”

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Russia’s battle to convince people to join its war is being waged on Telegram



Russia’s battle to convince people to join its war is being waged on Telegram

Just minutes after Putin announced conscription, the administrators of the anti-Kremlin Rospartizan group announced its own “mobilization,” gearing up its supporters to bomb military enlistment officers and the Ministry of Defense with Molotov cocktails. “Ordinary Russians are invited to die for nothing in a foreign land,” they wrote. “Agitate, incite, spread the truth, but do not be the ones who legitimize the Russian government.”

The Rospartizan Telegram group—which has more than 28,000 subscribers—has posted photos and videos purporting to show early action against the military mobilization, including burned-out offices and broken windows at local government buildings. 

Other Telegram channels are offering citizens opportunities for less direct, though far more self-interested, action—namely, how to flee the country even as the government has instituted a nationwide ban on selling plane tickets to men aged 18 to 65. Groups advising Russians on how to escape into neighboring countries sprung up almost as soon as Putin finished talking, and some groups already on the platform adjusted their message. 

One group, which offers advice and tips on how to cross from Russia to Georgia, is rapidly closing in on 100,000 members. The group dates back to at least November 2020, according to previously pinned messages; since then, it has offered information for potential travelers about how to book spots on minibuses crossing the border and how to travel with pets. 

After Putin’s declaration, the channel was co-opted by young men giving supposed firsthand accounts of crossing the border this week. Users are sharing their age, when and where they crossed the border, and what resistance they encountered from border guards, if any. 

For those who haven’t decided to escape Russia, there are still other messages about how to duck army call-ups. Another channel, set up shortly after Putin’s conscription drive, crowdsources information about where police and other authorities in Moscow are signing up men of military age. It gained 52,000 subscribers in just two days, and they are keeping track of photos, videos, and maps showing where people are being handed conscription orders. The group is one of many: another Moscow-based Telegram channel doing the same thing has more than 115,000 subscribers. Half that audience joined in 18 hours overnight on September 22. 

“You will not see many calls or advice on established media on how to avoid mobilization,” says Golovchenko. “You will see this on Telegram.”

The Kremlin is trying hard to gain supremacy on Telegram because of its current position as a rich seam of subterfuge for those opposed to Putin and his regime, Golovchenko adds. “What is at stake is the extent to which Telegram can amplify the idea that war is now part of Russia’s everyday life,” he says. “If Russians begin to realize their neighbors and friends and fathers are being killed en masse, that will be crucial.”

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The Download: YouTube’s deadly crafts, and DeepMind’s new chatbot



The YouTube baker fighting back against deadly “craft hacks”

Ann Reardon is probably the last person whose content you’d expect to be banned from YouTube. A former Australian youth worker and a mother of three, she’s been teaching millions of loyal subscribers how to bake since 2011. But the removal email was referring to a video that was not Reardon’s typical sugar-paste fare.

Since 2018, Reardon has used her platform to warn viewers about dangerous new “craft hacks” that are sweeping YouTube, tackling unsafe activities such as poaching eggs in a microwave, bleaching strawberries, and using a Coke can and a flame to pop popcorn.

The most serious is “fractal wood burning”, which involves shooting a high-voltage electrical current across dampened wood to burn a twisting, turning branch-like pattern in its surface. The practice has killed at least 33 people since 2016.

On this occasion, Reardon had been caught up in the inconsistent and messy moderation policies that have long plagued the platform and in doing so, exposed a failing in the system: How can a warning about harmful hacks be deemed dangerous when the hack videos themselves are not? Read the full story.

—Amelia Tait

DeepMind’s new chatbot uses Google searches plus humans to give better answers

The news: The trick to making a good AI-powered chatbot might be to have humans tell it how to behave—and force the model to back up its claims using the internet, according to a new paper by Alphabet-owned AI lab DeepMind. 

How it works: The chatbot, named Sparrow, is trained on DeepMind’s large language model Chinchilla. It’s designed to talk with humans and answer questions, using a live Google search or information to inform those answers. Based on how useful people find those answers, it’s then trained using a reinforcement learning algorithm, which learns by trial and error to achieve a specific objective. Read the full story.

—Melissa Heikkilä

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