Paradigms and Principles: Ballot Writing

This week I would like to discuss the following question:
A. Should judges write comments and/or a reason for decision on the ballot?

Back in the day writing detailed comments and a reason for decision was part and parcel to judging. Today there are many tournaments where almost nobody writes much on the ballot (other than to indicate speaker points and a winner). I would speculate that this is primarily due to the fact that oral critiques are common, and I imagine that ballot writing is still more thorough in places where oral critiques are not common.

This reluctance to write on the ballot may be a good thing. Most judges are able to deliver oral comments in a shorter time than it would take to write them, which in turn may move tournaments along more quickly. Moreover, a fixation on ballots is often problematic. They rarely explain all that they could, and when kids are confused or have questions they have little recourse. The information on a ballot is also difficult to decipher in a number of ways. Judges’ handwriting is notoriously bad, and often a sense of the context of the round is lost shortly after it’s over. Two days later nobody knows what “Conceded third answer to the second contention takes out AC offense, DA is undercovered,” really means in substantive terms, even if we do get a rough sense of the judge’s reasoning. Finally, insofar as ballot writing trades off with oral critique (if for no other reason than that ballot writing is time consuming), many judges feel they are able to offer less substantive advice. Debaters are likely to get a lot more out of oral critiques where they can ask questions, and where judges can see confusion or frustration and tailor their comments appropriately.

On the other hand, ballot writing may be important. While most coaches encourage students to take notes during an oral critique, it is rare that those notes are actually utilized by either coaches or students. With ballots coaches have an opportunity to read what judges have to say unmediated by debaters’ explanations, which are not always accurate. Also, we all know that some judges offer advice that as coaches we wouldn’t want our debaters to follow, or at least to take with a grain of salt. Putting that advice on the ballot makes it easier for a coach to frame the information being transmitted to students. Moreover, RFDs have to be more concrete and systematic when they are written on a ballot. Thinking through an RFD can be surprisingly difficult, particularly for young judges. I definitely believe that having to write down hundreds of RFDs in my early days as a coach and judge made me better at both.

So, should judges write comments and a reason for decision on the ballot?