Making the Most of Your Ballots by Noah McKay

Mid-season tournament preparation can be perplexing business, Coach Noah McKay will be starting his 2nd Semester LD Club in just a couple weeks. He will help you break down your cases, help analyze the best values, and come up with a strategy! Did you know you could also learn a ton from your ballots?

You have probably experienced the sinking feeling of going 1-5 after months of pre-season research and writing, along with attendant confusion about what, exactly, you are supposed to do to bring those numbers up the next go-round. After all, if you couldn’t find a winning argument anywhere in the thousands of pages you read between July and December, where can you find one?

Of course, it is always important to revise your cases mid-season in response to new research and examples. But if you spent your time well in the fall, you shouldn’t be running into a great deal of new information during the tournament season (at least, if you are an LDer like me). Mostly, you will be contending with new arguments that present the information in different ways. The toughest part of mid-season preparation is figuring out which argument are worth making and which are not.

Luckily, by the end of your first tournament, you will have a paper trail leading back to the best (and worst) arguments in your repertoire: your ballots. These are, in my opinion, your single most valuable resource when it comes to mid-season case revisions. In this post, I will offer a few tips for making the most of your ballots. I am writing from the perspective of a Lincoln-Douglas debater, but nearly of what I have to say applies equally to other formats (and speech-only students will find Sections 2 and 4 helpful, too).

1. Sound arguments are not always winning arguments.

As a highly abstract thinker, I struggle to distinguish between sound arguments and persuasive arguments. There is an important difference between the two: an argument it sound if it shouldbe convincing; it is persuasive if it actually is convincing. Ideally, you should be making arguments that are both sound and persuasive in your rounds. Different debaters will find one or the other of these criteria easier to meet, though by and large I think debaters are better at recognizing sound arguments than they are at recognizing persuasive ones. Ballots are useful because they can help you identify which sound arguments are likely to persuade judges. And the more ballots you accumulate and analyze, the better your sense will be of what judges tend to find convincing. 

There are a few purists out there who will have a hard time scrapping impeccable arguments simply because judges aren’t crazy about them. Believe me, I understand. But the purpose of debate is to educate and positively impact your audience, not to craft the most technically pure argument in the league. (Sometimes – in the best of times – the most technically pure arguments are the most persuasive, but not always.) If you need to take a therapeutic trip to the world of the abstract, consider joining a philosophy club. (That is serious advice.)

2. You can’t please everyone.

I probably don’t need to say this, but your ballots will almost never give you a uniform picture of which arguments you should drop and which you should develop further. Different judges find different things persuasive; one judge may put your first contention down as her RFD, and an hour later another judge may dock your speaker points because he thought your first contention was abysmal. But over the course of the season, trends usually emerge. If the ratio of negative to positive reactions to an argument is 70/30, for instance, you should probably drop it.

3. Share you ballots – even your losing ones.

You probably have not thought of this, and it probably sounds uncomfortable. But the more data you have about judge preferences, the better. If you can convince other members of your club to exchange ballots with you, do it, especially if you are running similar cases. By combining your resources, you may discover that one particular argument is winning or losing rounds repeatedly for everyone in the club. 

4. Read through your ballots (at least) twice, and take notes.

No two ballots comment on precisely the same things. Your first ballot may mention your definitions but gloss over your framework completely; your second ballot may do the opposite. So consulting ballots individually or comparing them side-by-side is not always supremely helpful. The best approach, in my experience, is to start by reading through all your ballots in one sitting and trying to identify emergent themes among them. Label each of these with key words: for example, if several of your ballots contain high praise for your thalidomide application, write down “thalidomide app. = good,” or something like that.  (Occasionally, one of your arguments will receive numerous positive and negative reviews. In that case, you could write down a second key phrase, like “thalidomide app. = bad,” or maybe just put “pro” and “con” columns under a single label.)

After your first read-through, walk away for a bit. (Reading ballots can be frustrating – make yourself a cup of coffee or take a walk.) Then come back later and go through each ballot more carefully, making tally marks under each of your themes every time it is mentioned. For example, if four of your ballots are critical of your framework, represent that with four tally marks. You should end up with something like this:

Value = good

//// /

Contention 1 needs support


Def. of advancement = unfair


GMO example

pro: //

con: ////

Notice that this graphic representation gives us a sense, not only of what judges did or did not find convincing, but of what was more or less important to them. A few judges were displeased with the lack of support under Contention 1, but more judges were concerned about the definition of advancement. So given the choice between spending more time defending the definition or spending more time supporting Contention 1, it would be wise to choose the former (assuming the definition is integral to the case – if it is not, dropping it completely and adding support to Contention 1 would be the best move).

Of course, you don’t have to use precisely this method. But whatever method you use, you should focus on distilling recurrent themes from your ballots into concrete guidance. And this body of guidance will grow as the season progresses.

This approach may seem unrealistically quantitative. And that is probably true. Your ballots will only ever give you an approximation of what you should or should not change about your cases. But an approximation is much, much better than nothing, and remaining in the dark about what your audience thinks will not make you a better communicator.

So go dig those manilla envelopes OR print your online ballots and get going!!

Like what Coach Noah had to say! Join his LD Club, NOW! Do you have other questions about Speech or Debate? Contact We’d love to hear from you!