Topic Selection Reform: The Lexington* Solution

Article by Steven Adler
Author’s note: We appreciate the large amount of outpour in response to our article. For now, though, we ask that people primarily focus their comments on the substantive reform itself rather than criticisms of our asking for the ballot. We understand that it is an important issue with the case, but we have already spent a lot of time thinking about that decision and are going to stick with our approach. People are still free, of course, to criticize that method if they wish, but we will focus our efforts upon responding to the substantive feedback. This is something we will be pushing for in-round even if select individuals backlash against it. It is in everyone’s interest, however, to have the best topic selection process possible.

I. Introduction
People should not wake up to a newly-announced topic and feel blind-sided or devastated. Facebook should not be flooded within moments by debaters asking, “How did this happen?” or declaring that they are quitting debate. Ideally, debaters should feel reasonably okay with the topic selection: it might not have been their top choice, but it should be something somewhat foreseeable, and more importantly, something with which people can live.

Despite this seemingly-axiomatic fact—that the debate community should select topics with which its members are happy—most recent topic releases have been peppered with varying degrees of confusion and outrage. Uproar about the most recent release was so heated that it spawned a 100-post thread discussing the merits of tournaments throwing out the topic altogether. Shouldn’t there be a productive forum to avoid such controversial or disliked topic releases in the future? Surely some amount of complaining is inevitable, and surely people should try to exercise more maturity—these facts are apparent. But at the same time, why should debaters just repeatedly be told to suck it up? Why shouldn’t debaters instead strive to fix the system so that they can minimize the kinds of unpleasant reactions that everyone dislikes?

To that end, Paul Zhou, Adam Hoffman, and I have co-authored a position that calls for reform of the topic selection process. We wish to outline what we advocate, why we advocate it, and what you can do to help. It is important to note that the rest of our program does not necessarily agree with our movement or with bringing it into debate rounds as a position; this is primarily our cause, and questions or feedback related to it should not be targeted at non-involved parties.

We believe that the current topic selection method is flawed in two main ways. First, we believe that the process leading up to the topic vote itself is neither sufficiently transparent, nor sufficiently fleshed out. Second, we believe that the NFL’s current voting system is not nearly as democratic as is often claimed. To resolve those problems, we advocate a more open, more deeply discussed process of getting topics onto the final ballot. We also propose a more democratic voting system that would make the topic more responsive to the community’s wishes. This does not necessarily mean abandoning the NFL; it would, however, require reforming the NFL’s voting process if it were to remain in charge of the proceedings. To be clear, our argument is not merely about the merits of targeted killing versus domestic violence—it is about improving the selection process moving forward so that everyone is happy with whatever is chosen.

II. Problems with the Lead-Up
The first problem with the lead up to the actual vote itself is its lack of transparency. When we refer to this lead up, we are primarily referring to the behind-the-scenes procedures that dictate the final ten resolutions that will make it onto the actual ballot and be presented to the community for a vote. Even if the final vote itself is wholly democratic—a fact we will dispute in the context of the NFL—a lack of transparency leading up to the vote could compromise much of the democratic value. We do not mean to question the ethics or accountability of any individual responsible for policies during this lead-up; rather, we call for structural reforms that would make the sound ethics and strong dedication of these members more visible to the community at-large.

One proposed reform of ours is increased transparency in terms of what topics have been submitted. Although the NFL does publish its chosen ten resolutions on its ballots, the rest of the proposed submissions are not formally recognized, nor are they acknowledged with an explanation of how the committee whittled down the field. The community is simply handed ten potential resolutions; there is no record of what topics have been consistently skipped over, what determines the rationale for a good topic, what factors went into the topics’ final wordings, or a variety of other valuable pieces of information.

Surely the Topic Selection Committee is composed of extraordinarily busy individuals, and it might not be entirely fair to ask them to commit so much time after the fact to explaining their decisions publically—but therein lies part of the problem. The topic selection process should not be such a rushed event, nor should it be an affair largely for politically-connected community members who can fly to Nationals for the discussion. Meetings themselves might be open, but attending those meetings is not feasible for a large subsection of the community, nor will those unconnected members likely be solicited by the committee for feedback. To fix these problems, the topic selection process should be more democratized and thought out to allow for greater access and depth of decision-making.

We think that one good reform would be to implement a thorough “topic paper” requirement in which proposed resolutions were submitted with essays highlighting the research literature, providing a few examples of potential topic wordings (and their implications), and discussing some of the pros and cons of the topic choice. These papers should be published online, along with the total list of submitted topics, for community discussion and review prior to any vote. Presently, whatever is submitted with the topics is not accessible for the community at-large, so it cannot take the paper into account when voting for its chosen topic. The inability to discuss these topic papers also leaves them more shallow than they otherwise would be; even if an initial paper were brief, community discussion around the paper could expand the scope and make sure to hit upon critical issues.

The concerns of community members about debaters or judges affected by domestic violence should not have come out only after the topic’s selection; regardless of whether one thinks it is good or bad to confront those issues in a round, that discussion should have been made public before the topic was put on a binding ballot for a communal vote. Similarly, if people are concerned about the amount of literature on a topic, that should be an issue brought forward before the topic’s selection so that the community is informed when it goes to make its important decisions. The committee surely tries to make informed decisions in the status quo, but at the end of the day, it’s a limited number of members, from limited subsections of the community, with limited time on its hands. The solution seems to be to expand access and time constraints.

We have also considered a series of other reforms on this front, including a primary to vote for topics to appear on the actual ballot, but we are very much interested in hearing more ideas. We want to make the lead up process as transparent and open as possible, and suggestions for implementation or innovation are greatly encouraged.

III. Problems with the Vote
Beyond the lead up, we feel that the current system is not wholly democratic. The NFL surely provides some good services for the community, but we think that its requirements for voting can be reformed to encourage a more democratic voting process.

Although community members are fond of saying that topics are chosen by a democratic vote, we question if that is wholly the case. To vote for the topic, a school must be a member of the NFL at a charge of $100 annually. Beyond that, schools that then choose to sign up their students pay a $15 fee per debater. While $100 is a pittance for some programs, it is still a significant amount—the registration fee for a handful of debaters at a local tournament. The NFL certainly has a right to charge a fee for some of its services, to pay the salaries of its employees who maintain the organization, but this membership fee should not be a necessary prerequisite to voting. Surely the upkeep of a ballot system is not $100 per school, and if it is not, then why should schools that only wish to vote but not to draw from the NFL’s other services be roped into buying the package in tandem? Joining the NFL for the purpose of voting and being able to send more kids to tournaments should not be a tradeoff, but it is one that some schools surely have to make. As long as one believes that a program’s wealth should not determine whether or not it has a democratic voice, such outlandishly high barriers to voting cannot be justified.

We also think that the democratic value of the current voting system could be improved by implementing some of the transparency measures mentioned above. It is a long-acknowledged fact that relatively few schools in the community actually vote for the topic, and we think part of the problem is the process’s largely mysterious ways. It is disempowering to invest in a system that produces seemingly unexplainable outcomes, especially if it costs your program a substantial amount to vote. It is similarly disempowering to invest in a system in which one can repeatedly submit topics with little explanation as to why they were not chosen and no discussion about the topics’ relative merits. When people feel as if they understand and can affect the topic selection processes, they will participate in greater numbers. The current system might be democratic in the sense that the topic with the most votes wins, but such a reformed system would provide a qualitatively better democracy with higher rates of participation. For chosen topics to really reflect the community, more members need to vote.

IV. How to Get Involved
We will be pursuing a variety of options for topic selection reform in the coming months, many of which are still being thought through. For now, one of the most helpful things to help change the topic selection process is to help us refine our cause. We are eager to discuss our advocacy with the rest of the community and to figure out the best way to change a process that most agree needs reform. The comments section of this article can be used for that end. More private means, such as Facebook and email, are also available. Essentially, we welcome discussion of our ideas and would love support in changing the topic selection process. We really like Ari’s ideas, for example, about avoiding consecutive similar topics by not forcing people to vote for every slot all at once; we would love to hear some more concerns so that we can formulate a proper solution.

A slightly more controversial element of our advocacy is that we will be presenting it in rounds and asking the judge to award their ballot to further our movement. We have considered at length why our advocacy calls for a ballot, and we truly believe that these discussions need to take place in rounds to be effective, and that to try to win offers the best possible discussions.

Every year, there are multiple threads online about topic selection online, but nothing ever changes—people gripe about the process or complain about why certain topics were chosen for the ballot over others (LDDebate had a number of these threads, but we cannot link to it because the threads are closed), but then the community goes unchanged. The Voices Educational Forum has also discussed options for topic selection reform in the past, but even an event solely dedicated to hashing out community issues—and one recorded on film, at that—could not spur change. It is too easy for debaters to tune out the online conversations or to not contribute for fear of looking uncool; bringing the issue into rounds forces discourse around the issue and gains attention from a wider scope of participants.

Similarly, winning rounds helps to gain that attention: not only is there the prospect of reaching elimination rounds with audiences, but the fear of losing also motivates competitors to really think through the issues. They might be thinking through why the arguments flawed, but even that discussion helps to refine the movement and to force engagement on the issues. Once the ballot is no longer at stake, there is far less incentive to join the discussion and to think through the advocacy. Putting the ballot at stake also encourages debaters to join the movement: competitors have to think through what they’ve personally done to help reform the flawed process so that they can claim to have had a good effect on the community. Debaters might email the NFL to reform its practices who otherwise would not get involved, and thus the movement will grow.

We respect that some people will object to our introducing this issue in rounds and that some will feel we should concede the ballot. Please know that we have given a lot of thought to these issues and that we really do want to improve the community. Even if you oppose our introducing the issues the way we do, we would still really appreciate your help in changing the selection process. You do not have to agree with the means of our position to agree that the current model is flawed and drastically need reforms. Please consider joining in and making a positive change regardless of your view on micropolitics.

Together, it is our hope that we can accomplish these reforms as a community.

*—As indicated in the introduction, not all members of Lexington are affiliated with this position. Questions or feedback related to it, therefore, should be directed to one of the principal authors: Paul Zhou; Adam Hoffman; or Steven Adler. We are happy to discuss the position at-length.