What do lay judges vote on? Arguments, Speaking, Argumentation Skills

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*Public Forum (PF) debates are often judged by “lay” judges — those with little to no previous experience debate experience
*Lay judges generally decide debates on one of three criteria — overall truth of the resolution, overall speaking skills, overall debating skills.  There is obviously be implicit overlap between these and sometimes there is explicit overlap
*Debaters should plan to excel in all three skill areas if they want to win awards
*Judge training should incorporate topic knowledge so that judges can focus on arguments when making decisions
*A link to the full ballots that have been reviewed is here
In Public Forum debate, contestants will be evaluated a number of “lay” judges who will decide their fate. These lay judges may be community members who come out to support the tournament, parents of other contestants in the tournaments, and maybe even supporting teachers who do not have a background in debate.
While many tournaments attempt to find judges with more significant experience for the other main debate events – Lincoln-Douglas and Policy – Public Forum (PF) debaters should expect to have a substantial number of lay judges at tournaments.
While this feature of PF debate can frequently be frustrating for the students, a critical component of debaters’ success comes from adapting to these lay judges.
But what are lay judges looking for? Do they vote primarily on arguments that establish the overall truth or falsity of the resolution (as judges with experience likely do), how well debaters speak, or the overall strength of their arguments throughout the debate?
Many of the nation’s best PF debaters develop a sense of this over time and will attempt to figure out what type of judge they have before the debate. But even before they do that, they need to figure out what different types of judges are looking for.
One way to look at what lay judges are looking for is to review ballots from tournaments. Just a few years ago, all ballots used to be posted publicly, but now debaters usually only get to see their own ballots at tabroom.com
The New York City Debate League (NYCUDL), however, still uses paper ballots and they scan them to make them available to all debaters online after the tournament.
Since the tournament also mostly relies on volunteer lay judges from New York Cares and other organizations it has a large pool of lay judges. In fact, since we (I work with the NYCUDL) have so many individuals come to volunteer to judge, we prioritize placement of the lay, volunteer judges in the debates.
So, we have a set of publicly available ballots from (mostly (not all the judges were lay)) judges to review when to determine what they are looking for.
Before I started to review the ballots, I made two mental notes —
First, I thought most of the judges would judge primarily on speaking ability. If this was a scientific experiment, that would be my hypothesis.
Second, I sought to categorize the ballots in the following ways –
(a) The Reason for Decision (RFD) focused primarily on determining whether or not it was best for South Korea to support anti-missile systems (the September/October PF Resolution)
b) The RFD focused on overall public speaking skills, including such things as “confidence” and “eye contact.”

(c) The RFD focused not the “truth” of the resolution (as established in the debate) but on the overall argumentation skills o f the debaters – strong reasoning, strong evidence, avoidance of logical fallacies, etc.
This type of ballot is different from (a) because it just looks at whether or not particular arguments are strong or weak, not the overall truth of the resolution.  Judges focusing on (a) would acknowledge that even if the Pro had only 1 strong argument (losing two others, for example) they may still win because missile defense has been proven net desirable even in the face of (perhaps) three Con arguments.
I suspected that most lay judges who did not focus their RFDs on (b) would focus them on (c).
I categorized each of 45 ballots into categories (a)-(c) and found the following —
23 judges focused their RFDs  on (a) the overall truth of the resolution (is missile defense in South Korea’s best interest?)
12 judges focused their decisions on (b) the public speaking skills of the students
10 judges focused their decision on (c) the overall argumentative strength of the debaters
There are a some things worth noting about my review of the ballots.
1. It’s a relatively small sample size.  There are literally thousands of PF debates that occur each weekend. This simply reviews 45 ballots.
2. Many judges judged multiple debates. I didn’t look to see if their emphasis on (a), (b), (c) shifted at all
3. Only one person categorized the ballots — me. It would be interesting to have 3+ people categorize these ballots and see if we put them in the same categories.
4. It’s only one set of judging and how those judges view the debates may have been substantially impacted by the training they received at the start of the tournament.  They were told to focus their decisions on the arguments and save speaker points for the speaking.
5. To make it easier, I reviewed only the open/varsity ballots. This was the first novice tournament of the year, so who knows what novice judges could really be voting on.
6.  While “framework” isn’t a big consideration on local circuits, it is on the national circuit. I noticed that a couple judges paid close attention to definition of terms and framework.

7. As noted, there were a few more experienced judges in the pool. In the future, it would be worth trying to exclude them from the analysis.
8. To win debates in PF, you need to have strong arguments, speak well, debate well, and use strong public speaking skills.  The emphasis on each will vary by judge, but if you display all of these in all of your debates you will be very competitively successful.  This seems like a good thing! 🙂
9. Judge training should focus not only on mechanics and the basics of public speaking and argumentation but also on a quick overview of what arguments judges will likely hear on the topic.  If judges are aware of the basic arguments, they are more likely to vote on them.
Additional examples of ballots that focused on the net desirability of missile defense (a)

Note that this last ballot says even though the Con had the most organized arguments (c), the judge voted Pro because they Con didn’t answer an important argument.
Additional examples of ballots that emphasized speaking (b) —

No RFD here, but all comments focus on speaking —

Additional examples of ballots that focused on overall debating abilities (c)

This last one could also go in (a), but I put it here because it seems the judge ultimately voted Con because the Con arguments made “more sense.”