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Make Congress Meritocratic: End Preferential Balloting

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Op/Ed: The Chamber Would Prefer You Not

I have to start with an embarrassing acknowledgement: one of the reasons that I became so heavily involved with debate was that I wasn’t as popular in high school as I could’ve been. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t have traded the time for anything, but I’m sure the sentiment is echoed by plenty on the circuit. There was always something extremely satisfying about blocking out superfluous social pressures when I attended a tournament, knowing that my talents would speak for themselves and that the judge’s ballot was the first and last authority I had to worry about. It helped me through hard times, allowing me to escape the claustrophobia-inducing bubble of my 60 student-per-class school, as well as encouraging me to elevate my game in the process.

Suffice it to say, when I learned about the tab procedures utilized at top congressional debate tournaments like Yale, GMU, and NCFL, I was reminded of the pettiest of high school dynamics. For those who are unfamiliar with these events, they utilize a system known as “preferential balloting”, hereinafter known as “pref.” With a pref system, along with the usual judges’ rankings, students themselves rank their top opponents on their own ballots, which are then factored into the final rankings. (While the “weight” assigned to the ballots, as well as how many students are eligible to be boosted by it, varies by round, this is unimportant for the sake of today’s discussion.)

While I was unable to attend these tournaments in high school, it’s still clear that playing popularity contests at the highest levels of the event unjustly extends the reign of the circuit’s many different in-crowds, eroding the ideal of Congress along the way. For everyone - from the diligent big-school student held back by unpopularity to the next self-taught rural competitor trying to break through - it’s time to end preferential balloting.

Pref’s impacts on competition couldn’t be more tangible, mainly because it allows the same set of established competitors to proliferate their results, even when they don’t deserve it. This is true because pref favors students who are well-known in every instance. If a relatively new competitor is given the chance to vote, and they only recognize one or two names in their chamber as “good,” you can bet those big names will earn the benefit of the doubt, whether subconsciously, through social pressures, or otherwise. If a more seasoned debater is given the opportunity, he or she will frequently vote for his or her friends, who also happen to be the ones who have been around the longest time.

This doesn’t just help more “popular” people as opposed to those who are less so, but it also destroys a lot of the hopes of new competitors. In a big out round, everyone can find someone else in the chamber whose rank to elevate. This guarantees that any new, unknown student, or any student who may have performed incredibly but isn’t an established champion, of performing, even if the judges deem them deserving. Especially at events which don’t limit qualifiers by region, it helps big school programs and those from geographic “congress clusters.” It makes sense that people from XYZ High School pick up others from XYZ. When XYZ has four people in a final, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they can count on a few votes. The same concept applies to those on Florida or Texas’s circuit, who have known each other since freshman year locals. At the very least, it’s an obstacle to the democratization of the event because of how it helps people who have more free time to politick far away from the chamber. (For example, if I spend the same time on Skype with my debate friends that an opponent has to spend working a part time job or looking after family, those same friends will probably pref me.)

Advocates for the form will say that this helps people who are personable, and that this is integral to the event. However, there are a few responses to this. If you’re not personable in-round, if you break with the unspoken caveats and decencies of the round, prepare for a challenge making your way up the ranks, regardless of pref. Presiding officers will drop you, docket votes will go against you, and other speakers will allow your points to be buried in obscurity. This is punishment enough for “unpopular” students. If someone can survive all of this and still climb the ranks of a top national tournament, they deserve that trophy more than anyone.

What’s more, so many times, “charisma,” especially outside of chamber, can be code for many other things that are less acceptable to say in public. Like telling people to talk less or smile more, which takes on a far more sinister implication when we think of executives in the workforce saying it to aspirational career women than it does in Hamilton. While the circuit is lucky not to deal with many of the stigmatic biases plaguing much of the country, this doesn’t make us immune to biases, active or otherwise. Being an outsider is as often a byproduct of discriminatory ostracism as it is a manifestation of one’s own actions, and pref balloting only ensures all the more that the social norms which stack the deck in the professional world dictate success before we even start the round.

Even after all of this, this faction seems to completely ignore the fact that these soft social skills already play an inordinate role without pref balloting rearing its head. Judges are well within their rights to downrank a delegate on disposition alone, real or imagined. Right or not (friends have been kept out of major finals this year due to being punished in ranks for actions the students sitting next to them were responsible for),  they exercise this right frequently. As anybody in the forensics community outside the mires of our event will tell you, congressional debate is already too social. Pref balloting pushes us further from the meritocratic system we all need.

The last point especially is all the more pertinent today, as we are all aware of the challenges the event faces. While we’re reticent to use the common refrain that congress is “dying,” we do think that we are at an indisputable crossroads. More than any other event its age, Congress has undergone a revolution in the 21st century, prioritizing rigor and retort in a tight rhetorical structure which, when done right, is peerless. Nonetheless, far too often, we hear from people who should’ve been Congressional debaters taking another route. LDers, PFers, and extempers - extempers whose favorite tournaments are the ones which employ cross x, no less - all have the same gripes about our event. While there is certainly more than one kink we need to iron out, many of these lamentations are turnable. Those who think the event lacks policy depth simply haven’t been in the right rounds. Those who think the rounds are too large forget that one of Congress’s assets is teaching how to maximize each moment.

However, there’s one critique that leaves me lost for words: that Congress isn’t meritocratic. That it’s more driven by who you know than by what you know in any given round. This isn’t something we can fix overnight, but pref balloting is one of our most flagrantly abusive practices. The fact that, at a national championship tournament, no less, a student could place eighth on judge ranks and still leave with the title, is embarrassing to the competition. To an astute debater, it sends a clear message: spend less time prepping and more time politicking. If we keep going in this direction, ten years from now, the event we all fell in love with could be unrecognizable. Whatever political forces are keeping this reform at bay, they need to concede on this issue, because if Congress falls down the preferential balloting rabbit hole, the clout you have in these circles will wither into insignificance.

Let me be clear that I don’t begrudge any successes had by competitors at pref tournaments, recent or otherwise. In fact, I consider many of these champions close friends, as well as tremendously positive impacts on my life. Nevertheless, I’m sure they too would agree that their policy is good enough to let the judge ballots do the talking.* While we students are flattered that you think our thoughts on the round should play a role in the end result, this isn’t the right approach. Instead, we would like to be judged based on the round, even if - especially if - it means that less popular, less-known participants win the day. In other words, the chamber would prefer you not.  

Trent Kannegieter

*This is more than just an assumption; the best on the circuit want to see pref gone. Look no further than our cosigners:

  • Mohammad Naeem (Champion, 2017 Tournament of Champions and NCFL Grand Nationals)
  • Shreeya Singh (Champion, 2016 Florida Blue Key, Crestian Tradition, Bronx, Bronx RR, 2017 Florida State Championship)
  • Gregory Seabrooks (Champion, 2017 Sunvitational, Sunvitational RR,  2016 Florida Blue Key RR, Crestian Tradition RR, Blake RR)
  • Alex Gordon (Champion, Yale 2016, Princeton 2016, Harvard 2017, Leadership Bowl, Harvard 2017, 3rd Place, NCFL Grand Nationals) 
  • Aditya Dhar (USA Debate member, United States representative to World Debate Championship, Runner-Up, 2016 Stanford, Berkeley, 3rd Place, Yale)
  • Victoria Bevard (Champion, 2016 NSDA Senate, Harvard, 4th Place, 2016 Tournament of Champions)
  • Jake Dean (Champion, 2016 NSDA House, Berkeley 2017, House Leadership Bowl)
  • Ellen Wang (Champion, 2016 Glenbrooks, UT Austin, UIL Texas State Champs)
  • Jake Cimerberg (Runner-Up, 2017 Tournament of Champions, 2016 Florida Blue Key, Sunvitational RR, 3rd Place, 2017 Sunvitational, Glenbrooks, Blue Key RR)
  • Ella Michaels (USA Debate Member, Runner-Up, Croatia 2016, Quarterfinalist, EurOpen - Germany - 2016, 2017 California State Champion)
  • Emma Lin (2nd Harvard 2017, 6th Harvard 2016, 4th Blue Key RR, 5th Glenbrooks, Sunvitational RR)
  • Maya Levkovitz (Champion, 2017 Emory, Finalist, 2017 NCFL Grand Nationals, Florida State Champs)
  • Meet Jain (Champion, 2016 GMU, 2017 North Carolina States, Runner-Up, Bronx RR, 4th Place, Wake Forest)
  • Quinn Stewart (5th Place, 2017 NCFL Grand Nationals, 3rd Place, Princeton, 5th Place, Sunvitational, 7th Place, Harvard, 2x Maine State Champion)
  • Jack Fitzgerald (6th Place, 2017 Tournament of Champions, 7th Place, NCFL Grand Nationals)
  • Gabrielle Cabeza (Top 6, Harvard 2017, Finals, 2016 Florida Blue Key, 2016 & 2017 NCFL Grand Nationals)
  • Nicholas Devito (Runner-Up, 2017 NCFL Grand Nationals, 3rd Place, 2016 Bronx, GMU, Finalist, Harvard)
  • Valerie Trapp (Runner-Up, GMU, 3rd Place, Bronx RR, 9th Place,  2017 Tournament of Champions, 12 national final rounds)
  • Jun-Yong Kim (Finalist, 2016 NSDA Senate, Harvard 2017, Emory 2017, 2x TX State Finalist)
  • Luke Tillitski (6th Place, 2017 Tournament of Champions, Finalist, 2017 Harvard, 2016 Glenbrooks, Bronx)
  • Sydney McDonald (2x Finalist, Yale, Finalist, Harvard)
  • Scott Wasserman (Finalist, Blue Key 2016, Sunvitational 2017)


Addendum by Alex Gordon:

I’ve disliked the concept of pref since my freshman year, when it dropped me from 5th place to 7th (and out of the competition) at CFL Nationals. It was one of my first national tournaments, and I worked hard to do my best, but pref was my downfall. Many face this reality at pref tournaments every time. However, this past year, I was on the other side of pref: a massive beneficiary. The judges in Yale finals ranked me as 5th, but my peers preffed me up to 1st place, and I flew home with a champion’s trophy. At CFL National finals this year, the judges ranked me 7th, but I was preffed up to 3rd place. Pref has been a cause of my heightened success at these tournaments, but I still dislike it with all my heart. There are judges in the back of the room for a reason, and it seems as though preferential balloting renders them practically obsolete. Just because I am well-known on the debate circuit and have had success at other tournaments does not give any right to my peers thinking I should do well every time. At the very least, if your tournament needs to have pref, make its worth equivalent to one separate judge, not 50 percent of the result. Or, if you want to include the opinion of the competitors, follow the likes of Harvard and NSDA Nationals, which have a Leadership Bowl to highlight the most respected leader. Pref was designed to be the great equalizer, compensating for missteps in judges’ ballots and giving students the chance to correct them by ranking who they believe should place highly. But in today’s era of congressional debate, pref is outdated, and it further engrains disparities in access, opportunity, and popularity. My name is Alexander Gordon, I am ranked first in the nation, and like Trent and many of my peers and friends, I believe that pref must go.



About the Author:

Trent Kannegieter is a recent graduate of Bayside Academy in Daphne, Alabama, where he founded, captained, and coached the speech and debate team. Among other awards, he was Champion Presiding Officer at the 2016 Tournament of Champions, as well as placing third at the Sunvitational Round Robin, Runner-Up at the Crestian Tradition, and winning 8 TOC bids in the only 13 months he was active on the national circuit. He also championed in the Deep South (AL) NSDA District in Senate (2017) and Lincoln Douglas Debate (2016), as well as qualifying to national tournaments in Public Forum and Extemporaneous Speaking. He will be coaching at Invicta Debate this summer and attending Yale University in the fall.

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