Policy debate

Policy debate is a form of debate competition in which teams of two advocate for and against a resolution that typically calls for policy change by the United States federal government. It is also referred to as cross-examination debate because of the 3-minute questioning period following each constructive speech. Evidence presentation is a crucial part of Policy Debate; however, ethical arguments also play a major role in deciding the outcome of the round. The main argument being debated during a round of Cross Examination is which team has a greater impact. This factor alone can decide the winner of a round. Whichever team can prove the greater impact is likely to win the round. When a team explains why their impacts are "greater" than the opposition's impacts, they utilize the concept of "impact calculus." One team’s job is to argue that the resolution— the statement that we should make some specific change to address a national or international problem —is a good idea. Affirmative teams generally present a plan as a proposal for implementation of the resolution. On the other hand, the Negative teams present arguments against the implementation of the resolution.In a single round of debate competition, each person gives two speeches. The first speech each person gives is called a “constructive” speech, because it is the speech where each person constructs the basic arguments they will make throughout the debate. The second speech is called a “rebuttal”, because this is the speech were each person tries to rebut the arguments made by the other team, while using their own arguments to try to convince the judge to vote for their team. The Affirmative has to convince the judge to vote for a change, while the Negative has to convince the judge that the status quo is better than the hypothetical world in which the Affirmative's plan is implemented.
High school policy debate is sponsored by various organizations including the National Speech and Debate Association, National Association of Urban Debate Leagues, Catholic Forensic League, Stoa USA, and the National Christian Forensics and Communications Association, as well as many other regional speech organizations. Collegiate policy debates are generally competed under the guidelines of National Debate Tournament and the Cross Examination Debate Association, which have been joined at the collegiate level. A one-person policy format is sanctioned by the National Forensic Association ) on the collegiate level as well.


Academic debate had its origins in intracollegiate debating societies, in which students would engage in debates against their classmates. Wake Forest University's debate program claims to have its origins in student literary societies founded on campus in the mid-1830s, which first presented joint "orations" in 1854. Many debating societies that were founded at least as early as the mid-nineteenth century are still active today, though they have generally shifted their focus to intercollegiate competitive debate. In addition to Wake Forest, the debate society at Northwestern University dates to 1855. Boston College's Fulton Debating Society, which was founded in 1868, continues to stage an annual public "Fulton Prize Debate" between teams of its own students after the intercollegiate debate season has ended. Other universities continue similar traditions.
Intercollegiate debates have been held since at least as early as the 1890s. Historical records indicate that debates between teams from Wake Forest University and Trinity College occurred beginning in 1897. Additionally, a debate between students from Boston College and Georgetown University occurred on May 1, 1895, in Boston. Whitman College debated Washington State University, Willamette University, and the University of Idaho in the late 1890s. Southwestern claims that the first debate held on its campus was between Southwestern and Fairmount College but that debate could not have occurred prior to 1895, the year Fairmount College began classes.
By the mid-1970s, structured rules for lengths of speeches developed. Each side was afforded two opening "constructive" speeches, and two closing "rebuttal" speeches, for a total of eight speeches per debate. Each speaker was cross-examined by an opponent for a period following his or her constructive speech. Traditionally rebuttals were half the length of constructives, but when a style of faster delivery speed became more standard in the late 1980s this time structure became problematic. Wake Forest University introduced reformed speech times in both its college and high school tournaments, which spread rapidly to become the new de facto standards. Policy debate allowed students to be more politically aware.

Style and delivery


Policy debaters' speed of delivery will vary from league to league and tournament to tournament. In many tournaments, debaters will speak very quickly in order to read as much evidence and make as many arguments as possible within the time-constrained speech. Speed readers benefit from "dropped arguments." In essence, if a team makes an argument, and the opposing team does not respond to it, that argument is assumed true. This is known as a "dropped argument" since the opposing team failed to refute it. Speed reading increases the burden on the opposing team as debaters present more arguments that the opposing team has to refute. Speed reading or spreading is normal at the majority of national circuit policy debate tournaments.
Some feel that the rapid-fire delivery makes debate harder to understand for the lay person. Rapid delivery is encouraged by those who believe that increased quantity and diversity of argumentation makes debates more educational. Others, citing scientific studies, claim that learning to speak faster also increases short- and long-term memory. A slower style is preferred by those who want debates to be understandable to lay people and those who claim that the pedagogical purpose of the activity is to train rhetorical skills. This is often an argument made by those who oppose in-round spreading - that the use of incomprehensible speeds makes debate less appealing to lay people. Many further claim that the increased speed encourages debaters to make several poor arguments, as opposed to a few high-quality ones. Most debaters will vary their rate of delivery depending upon the judge's preferences.


Debaters utilize a specialized form of note taking, called flowing, to keep track of the arguments presented during a debate. Conventionally, debater's flowing is divided into separate flows for each different argument in the debate round. There are multiple methods of flowing but the most common style incorporates columns of arguments made in a given speech which allows the debater to match the next speaker's responses up with the original arguments. Certain shorthands for commonly used words are used to keep up with the rapid rate of delivery. The abbreviations or stand-in symbols vary between debaters.
Flowing on a laptop has become more and more popular among high school and college debaters, despite the reservations of certain schools, tournaments, and judges. Some debaters use a basic computer spreadsheet; others use specialized flowing templates, which includes embedded shortcut keys for the most common formatting needs.

Speech Docs

During the round, debaters make speech docs with cards and analytics of arguments they will make to organize what they will say. In traditional debate theory, speech docs is known as a team's outline of their speech presentation, and the strategic flow of their arguments is known as the team's debate speech composition, typically the speaker gives a "road map" at the beginning stating the order that they will be addressing, and when they move onto different arguments, they "sign post" during their speech in order to make it easier for the judge to "flow."


Although there are many accepted standards in policy debate, there is no written formulation of rules. Sometimes debaters will in fact debate about how policy debate should work. These arguments are known as "theory arguments", and they are most often brought up when one team believes the actions of the other team are unfair and therefore warrant a loss. In more recent years, however, theory arguments have not been nearly as present in the Novice level as before.

Burdens of the affirmative

When the Affirmative team presents a plan, they take upon the Burden of the Policy to advocate that their plan should be adopted. They must prove that their plan is an example of the resolution, and they must prove that the plan is a good idea. The Affirmative traditionally must uphold this burden as preferable to the status quo using evidence from published sources, to avoid ridiculous cases.

Stock issues

One traditional way to judge policy debate states that the affirmative team must win certain issues, called the stock issues. They are generally known as follows:
What is the Status Quo? Is the affirmative's plan happening already, and if not, why? Inherency promotes strength and originality in advocacy.
What is the problem in the status quo to justify adopting the plan? Is the plan important enough to even warrant consideration or make a difference?
Will the plan solve any problems in the status quo? How much of an impact will the plan have?
Is the plan an example of the resolution? Is the Affirmative Team's plan in line with the change advocated by the resolution? Are those good reasons to affirm the resolution?
The standard "stock issues" presented as planks are Topicality, Inherency, Harms, and Solvency. Significance can be interwoven into any of those. Topicality is usually a simple matter to be argued later if the Negative brings up the issue. Affirmative case plans do not preemptively argue Disadvantages in the first speech, focusing on the advantages, uniqueness, significance, and so on of the plan's Solvency.
Stock issues are taught extensively to novice debaters to help them understand policy debate in general, but typically stock issues become better understood as debaters move into more sophisticated and less traditional debate outlines. Stock issues are strongly associated with traditional or succinct policy debate, and are typically stressed in advanced debates if the judge is known to be steeped in policy debate.

Advantages and disadvantages

Most affirmative teams today generally frame their case around advantages, which are good effects of their plan. The negative team will often present disadvantages which contend that the affirmative plan causes undesirable consequences. In an attempt to make sure that their advantages/disadvantages outweigh those of the other team, debaters often present extreme scenarios such as the extinction of the human race or a global nuclear war.

Negation tactic

Negation Tactic, also known as Negation Theory, contends that the negative need only negate the affirmative instead of having to negate the resolution. The acceptance of all-inclusive negation, as opposed piecemeal, allows Negative teams to run full argumentation outlines such as topical counterplans with better Solvency that affirms the resolution but still negate the Affirmative's plan.

Negative strategy

After the affirmative presents its case, the negative can attack the case with many different arguments, which include:
Evidence in debates is organized into units called cards. Cards are designed to condense an author's argument so that debaters have an easy way to access the information. A card is composed of three parts: the argument or evidence summary, the evidence that supports the argument, and the citation. The argument part, sometimes called the tag, is the debater's summary of the argument presented in the body. A tag is usually only one or two sentences. The citation contains all relevant reference citation information. Although every card should contain a complete citation, only the author's name and date of publication are typically spoken aloud in a speech. Some teams will also read the author's qualifications if they wish to emphasize this information. The body is a fragment of the author's original text. The length of a body can vary greatly—cards can be as short as a few sentences and as long as two or more pages. Most cards are between one and five paragraphs in length. The body of a card is often underlined or highlighted in order to eliminate unnecessary or redundant sentences when the card is read in a round. In a round, the tag is read first, followed by the cite and the body.
As pieces of evidence accumulate use, multiple colors of highlighting and different thicknesses of underlining often occur, sometimes making it difficult to determine which portion of the evidence was read. If debaters stop before finishing the underlined or highlighted portion of a card, it is considered good form to "mark" the card to show where one stopped reading. To otherwise misrepresent how much of a card was read—either by stopping early or by skipping underlined or highlighted sections—is known as "cross-reading" or "clipping" which is generally considered cheating. Although many judges overtly condemn the practice on their paradigms, it is hard to enforce, especially if judges permit debaters to be excessively unclear. Opponents will generally stand behind a debater whom they believe to be cross-reading or clipping, as if waiting to take a card, and silently read along with them in an attempt to get their opponent to stop or the judge to notice.
As cards are read in round, it is common for an opponent to collect and examine even while a speech is still going on. This practice originated in part because cards are read at a rate faster than conversational speed but also because the un-underlined portions of cards are not read in round. Taking the cards during the speech allows the opponent to question the author's qualifications, the original context of the evidence, etc. in cross-examination. It is generally accepted whichever team is using preparation time has priority to read evidence read previously during a round by both teams. As a result, large amounts of evidence may change hands after the use of preparation time but before a speech. Most judges will not deduct from a team's preparation time for time spent finding evidence which the other team has misplaced.
After a round, judges often "call for cards" to examine evidence whose merit was contested during the round or whose weight was emphasized during rebuttals so that they can read the evidence for themselves. Although widespread, this practice is explicitly banned at some tournaments, most notably National Catholic Forensic League nationals, and some judges refuse to call for cards because they believe the practice constitutes "doing work for debaters that should have been done during round". Judges may also call for evidence for the purpose of obtaining its citation information so that they can produce the evidence for their own school. Opponents and spectators are also generally allowed to collect citations in this manner, and some tournaments send scouts to rounds to facilitate the collection of cites for every team at the tournament, information which is sometimes published online.


A judge is an individual responsible for deciding the winner and loser of a policy round as well as assessing the merits of the speakers. Judges merit a good debate round and, ideally, avoid inserting their own personal beliefs that might cloud impartiality. Judges are also coaches who help debate teams improve.
Some circuits see lay or inexperienced judges recruited from the community as an important part of the activity of a debate club. Debaters in these circuits should be able to adapt their presentations to individuals with no debate experience at all, as well as maintaining high standards of debate for judges who have themselves been debaters. This use of lay judges significantly alters delivery and argumentation, as the rapid-fire style and complex debate-theory arguments are frequently new to lay judges. For this reason, other circuits restrict policy debate judging to qualified judges, generally ex-debaters.

Speaker points

The judge is charged not only with selecting a winner, but also must allot points to each debater. "Speaker points" are numeric merit scores that the judge awards the debaters on their speaking skills. Speaker point schemes vary throughout local state and regional organizations particularly at the high school level. However, the method accepted by most national organizations such as the National Forensic League, Tournament of Champions, National Catholic Forensic League, Cross-Examination Debate Association, and National Debate Tournament, use values ranging from 1 to 30. In practice, within these organizations the standard variation is 26‑29, where 26's are given to extremely poor speakers, where a perfect score is considered incredibly rare and warranted only by an outstanding performance. Most tournaments accept halfpoint gradiations, for example 28.5s, or even by tenths. Generally, speaker points are seen as secondary in importance to wins and losses, yet often correlate with a team's win/loss rate. In other words, the judge usually awards the winning team cumulatively higher speaker points than the losing team. If the judge does not, the decision is considered a "low-point win". Low-point wins simply mean that the team with better argumentation did not speak as well as their competitors, which is rare, because judges will vote for teams that speak better overall and award higher speaker points to teams who deliver a better debate. The difference can be stated as so, "the low-point winning team are better debaters, and the high-point losing team provided a better debate round".
In some smaller jurisdictions, the judge ranks the speakers 1‑4 instead of awarding them speaker points. Either speaker-point calculation may be used to break ties among teams with like records. Some areas also use speaker rankings in addition to speaker points in order to differentiate between speakers awarded the same number of points.
At a majority of tournaments, debaters also receive "speaker awards", which are awarded to the debaters who received the greatest number of speaker points. Many tournaments also drop the highest and lowest score received by each debater, in order to ensure that the speaker award calculations are fair and consistent, despite the preferences of different judges. The number of speaker awards given out varies based on the number of debaters competing at any given tournament. For instance, a small local tournament might only award trophies or plaques to the top three debaters, whereas a widely attended "national circuit" tournament might give out awards to the top ten or fifteen speakers.
Some judges eschew the tournament atmosphere for a few rounds in favor of debate as a speech activity for amateurs rather than for individual competitors. For example, a low-win team relies on teamwork, work ethic, and good coaching to deliver their speech debate as a cohesive, strategic whole to win tournaments as debaters rather than as speakers. One of the brilliance of this style of participation is speeches are delivered as if written and is as elegant on paper as they are in speech, focusing on persuasion as a goal rather than cleverness or complexity of performative tactics. The style is plain and is sometimes described as classical.
Other judges also eschew the competitive tournament atmosphere for a few rounds to challenge teams in speech skills and delivery. For example, the judge will give speaker points to the speaker who best lobs in a Monty Python joke, or who resolves the ethical component of the policy topic similar to Lincoln-Douglas debate, or who does not use technical or fantastical metaphors. Speakers who give logical directionality to the debate round with a good save on a decisive argument, or makes a compelling shift in argumentation, or who has clarity of purpose, or whose style of delivery stands out as the most comprehensive among four speakers, deserve high speaker points.


Experienced debate judges generally carry a mindset that favors certain arguments and styles over others. Depending on what mindset, or paradigm, the judge uses, the debate can be drastically different. Because there is no one view of debate agreed upon by everyone, many debaters question a judge about their paradigm and/or their feelings on specific arguments before the round.
Not every judge fits perfectly into one paradigm or another. A judge may say that they are "tabula rasa" or tab for short, or willing to listen to anything, but draw the line at arguments they consider to be offensive. Or, a judge might be a "policymaker", but still look at the debate in an offense/defense framework like a games-playing judge.
Examples of paradigms include:


Most high school debaters debate in local tournaments in their city, state or nearby states. Thousands of tournaments are held each year at high schools and certain colleges throughout the US.
A small subset of high school debaters, mostly from elite public and private schools, travel around the country to tournaments in what is called the 'national circuit.' The championship of the national circuit is usually considered to be the Tournament of Champions, also called the T.O.C, at the University of Kentucky, which requires formal qualification in the form of two or more bids to the tournament. Bids are achieved by reaching a certain level of elimination rounds at select, highly competitive, and carefully chosen tournaments across the country based upon the quality of debaters they attract and the diversity of locations from across the United States they represent.

Urban debate

s give students in urban school districts an opportunity to participate in policy debate. There are currently urban debate leagues in 24 of the largest cities in the United States. In total, more than 500 high schools participate in the league and more than 40,000 students have competed in urban debate.


High school

There is some dispute over what constitutes the "national championship" in the United States per se, but two tournaments generally compete for the title:
The Tournament of Champions held at the University of Kentucky, and the National Speech and Debate tournament sponsored by the National Forensic League. For the highest level of competition, the Tournament of Champions is generally considered to be the more prestigious title to hold.
In Texas, some debate occurs on the Texas Forensic Association level. This organization includes mostly the progressive judging paradigms and favors many off topic arguments. TFA is geared towards the larger schools/programs who tend to be in the suburban areas in the major cities in the eastern part of the state. The other type of debate is UIL. UIL is open to all public schools throughout Texas.
TFA State policy debate tends to favor a multitude of off-case arguments and teams that favor a progressive style; while UIL State tends to be more policy focused.


There is no single unified national championship in college debate; though the National Debate Tournament, the Cross Examination Debate Association and the American Debate Association all host national tournaments. The NDT committee issues a ranking report of the top 16 teams in the country for automatic advancement to the NDT in early February. The report roughly determines a regular season champion called the 'Copeland Award' for the team rated the highest over the course of the year through early February.

Institutes and camps

While once attended by only highly competitive policy debaters, many high school students now attend debate institutes, which are typically held at colleges in the summer. Most institutes range from about two to seven weeks.
Many institutes divide students into work groups, or "labs", based on skill level and experience. Many even offer specialized "advanced" or "scholars" workshops, to which acceptance is highly limited.


A resolution or topic is a statement which the affirmative team affirms and the negative team negates. Resolutions are selected annually by affiliated schools. Most resolutions from the 1920s to 2005 have begun "Resolved: that The United States federal government should" although some variations from this structure have been apparent both before the NDT-CEDA merger and with the 2006–2007 college policy debate topic, which limited the affirmative agent to the United States Supreme Court.
At the college level, a number of topics are proposed and interested parties write "topic papers" discussing the pros and cons of that individual topic. Each school then gets one vote on the topic. The single topic area voted on then has a number of proposed topic wordings, one is chosen, and it is debated by affiliated students nationally for the entire season.
At the high-school level, "topic papers" are also prepared but the voting procedure is different. These papers are then presented to a topic selection committee which rewords each topic and eventually narrows down the number of topics to five topics. Then the five resolutions are put to a two-tiered voting system. State forensic associations, the National Forensic League, and the National Catholic Forensic League all vote on the five topics, narrowing it down to two. Then the two topics are again put to a vote, and one topic is selected.
Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially reduce its military and/or police presence in one or more of the following: South Korea, Japan, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Iraq, Turkey.
Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially increase its exploration and/or development of space beyond the Mesosphere.
Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially increase its transportation infrastructure investment in the United States.
Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially increase its economic engagement toward Cuba, Mexico or Venezuela.
Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially increase its non-military exploration and/or development of the Earth's oceans.
Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially curtail its domestic surveillance.
Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially increase its economic and/or diplomatic engagement with the People's Republic of China.
Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially increase its funding and/or regulation of primary and/or secondary education in the United States.
Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially reduce its restrictions on legal immigration to the United States.
Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially reduce Direct Commercial Sales and/or Foreign Military Sales of arms from the United States.
Resolved: The United States federal government should enact substantial criminal justice reform in the United States in one or more of the following: forensic science, policing, sentencing.

Event structure

The times and speech order are generally as follows:
In addition to speeches, policy debates may allow for a certain amount of preparation time, or "prep time," during a debate round. NFL rules call for 5 minutes of total prep time that can be used, although in practice high school debate tournaments usually give 8 minutes of prep time. College debates typically have 10 minutes of preparation time. The preparation time is used at each team's preference; they can use different amounts of preparation time before any of their speeches, or even none at all. Prep time can be allocated strategically to intimidate or inconvenience the other team: for instance, normally a 1AR requires substantial prep time, so a well-executed "stand up 1AR," delivered after no prep time intimidates the negative team and takes away from time that the 2NR may have used to prepare the parts of his/her speech which do not rely on what the 1AR says.