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

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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.



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Yann LeCun has a bold new vision for the future of AI

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The Download: Yann LeCun’s AI vision, and smart cities’ unfulfilled promises


Melanie Mitchell, an AI researcher at the Santa Fe Institute, is also excited to see a whole new approach. “We really haven’t seen this coming out of the deep-learning community so much,” she says. She also agrees with LeCun that large language models cannot be the whole story. “They lack memory and internal models of the world that are actually really important,” she says.

Natasha Jaques, a researcher at Google Brain, thinks that language models should still play a role, however. It’s odd for language to be entirely missing from LeCun’s proposals, she says: “We know that large language models are super effective and bake in a bunch of human knowledge.”

Jaques, who works on ways to get AIs to share information and abilities with each other, points out that humans don’t have to have direct experience of something to learn about it. We can change our behavior simply by being told something, such as not to touch a hot pan. “How do I update this world model that Yann is proposing if I don’t have language?” she asks.

There’s another issue, too. If they were to work, LeCun’s ideas would create a powerful technology that could be as transformative as the internet. And yet his proposal doesn’t discuss how his model’s behavior and motivations would be controlled, or who would control them. This is a weird omission, says Abhishek Gupta, the founder of the Montreal AI Ethics Institute and a responsible-AI expert at Boston Consulting Group. 

“We should think more about what it takes for AI to function well in a society, and that requires thinking about ethical behavior, amongst other things,” says Gupta. 

Yet Jaques notes that LeCun’s proposals are still very much ideas rather than practical applications. Mitchell says the same: “There’s certainly little risk of this becoming a human-level intelligence anytime soon.”

LeCun would agree. His aim is to sow the seeds of a new approach in the hope that others build on it. “This is something that is going to take a lot of effort from a lot of people,” he says. “I’m putting this out there because I think ultimately this is the way to go.” If nothing else, he wants to convince people that large language models and reinforcement learning are not the only ways forward. 

“I hate to see people wasting their time,” he says.

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The Download: Yann LeCun’s AI vision, and smart cities’ unfulfilled promises

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The Download: Yann LeCun’s AI vision, and smart cities’ unfulfilled promises


“We’re addicted to being on Facebook.”

—Jordi Berbera, who runs a pizza stand in Mexico City, tells Rest of World why he has turned to selling his wares through the social network instead of through more conventional food delivery apps.

The big story

“Am I going crazy or am I being stalked?” Inside the disturbing online world of gangstalking

August 2020

Jenny’s story is not linear, the way that we like stories to be. She was born in Baltimore in 1975 and had a happy, healthy childhood—her younger brother Danny fondly recalls the treasure hunts she would orchestrate. In her late teens, she developed anorexia and depression and was hospitalized for a month. Despite her struggles, she graduated high school and was accepted into a prestigious liberal arts college.

There, things went downhill again. Among other issues, chronic fatigue led her to drop out. When she was 25 she flipped that car on Florida’s Sunshine Skyway Bridge in an apparent suicide attempt. At 30, after experiencing delusions that she was pregnant, she was diagnosed with schizophrenia. She was hospitalized for half a year and began treatment, regularly receiving shots of an antipsychotic drug. “It was like having my older sister back again,” Danny says.

On July 17, 2017, Jenny jumped from the tenth floor of a parking garage at Tampa International Airport. After her death, her family searched her hotel room and her apartment, but the 42-year-old didn’t leave a note. “We wanted to find a reason for why she did this,” Danny says. And so, a week after his sister’s death, Danny—a certified ethical hacker—decided to look for answers on Jenny’s computer. He found she had subscribed to hundreds of gangstalking groups across Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit; online communities where self-described “targeted individuals” say they are being monitored, harassed, and stalked 24/7 by governments and other organizations—and the internet legitimizes them. Read the full story.

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The US Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade. What does that mean?

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The US Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade. What does that mean?


Access to legal abortion is now subject to state laws, allowing each state to decide whether to ban, restrict or allow abortion. Some parts of the country are much stricter than others—Arkansas, Oklahoma and Kentucky are among the 13 states with trigger laws that immediately made abortion illegal in the aftermath of the ruling. In total, around half of states are likely to either ban or limit access to the procedure, with many of them refusing to make exceptions, even in pregnancies involving rape, incest and fetuses with genetic abnormalities. Many specialized abortion clinics may be forced to close their doors in the next few days and weeks.

While overturning Roe v Wade will not spell an end to abortion in the US, it’s likely to lower its rates, and force those seeking them to obtain them using different methods. People living in states that ban or heavily restrict abortions may consider travelling to other areas that will continue to allow them, although crossing state lines can be time-consuming and prohibitively expensive for many people facing financial hardship.

The likelihood that anti-abortion activists will use surveillance and data collection to track and identify people seeking abortions is also higher following the decision. This information could be used to criminalize them, making it particularly dangerous for those leaving home to cross state lines.

Vigilante volunteers already stake out abortion clinics in states including Mississippi, Florida and North Carolina, filming people’s arrival on cameras and recording details about them and their cars. While they deny the data is used to harass or contact people seeking abortions, experts are concerned that footage filmed of clients arriving and leaving clinics could be exploited to target and harm them, particularly if law enforcement agencies or private groups were to use facial recognition to identify them.

Another option is to order so-called abortion pills to discreetly end a pregnancy at home. The pills, which are safe and widely prescribed by doctors, are significantly less expensive than surgical procedures, and already account for the majority of abortions in the US.

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