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Standards:Lincoln-Douglas Debate

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The purpose of these rules is to define the goals and procedures of Lincoln-Douglas Debate such that all participants will enter into the debates sharing a common set of expectations. The rules are framed in such a way that debaters are allowed a degree of creative freedom.

These are the only rules for Lincoln-Douglas Debate. Judges are not permitted to impose additional rules on debaters. Because these rules focus on the goals and procedures of debate, they do not include all that, from a strategic perspective, might be considered principles of effective debate. Although principles are important to persuasive Lincoln-Douglas debating, they should not be enforced as rules.

Charges of any other rule violations should be taken to the Tournament Director. In the case of serious rule violations, the Tournament Director, or a committee designated by the Tournament Director, may impose penalties ranging from reprimand, to changing a decision or altering speaker points, to withdrawal of a debater or judge from a tournament.

A Tournament Director can make minor changes to these rules by obtaining the approval of the IDEA Accreditation Committee and by informing participants of the changes in advance of the tournament. To gain the approval of the IDEA Accreditation Committee, the Tournament Director must submit the changes to the Committee at least on month prior to the beginning of the tournament. The Accreditation Committee will then approve or disapprove these changes within a week. After the Tournament Director obtains approval of the changes from the Accreditation Committee, all participants must be informed of the changes.

For information regarding IDEA sanctioning of competitive events, please refer to Sanctioning Tournaments and Trainings.

Lincoln-Douglas Rules

Motions and Preparation

Debaters must be informed of resolutions well in advance of tournaments. Often, a single resolution can serve as the resolution for multiple tournaments over the course of a month or more.

In a Lincoln-Douglas Debate, the motion is a statement, phrased as a sentence, that focuses on an issue of philosophical or political concern, and which will be analyzed from a moral perspective. Each resolution should present a clear conflict between two positions, and should clearly demand defense or attack. Resolutions can range from general, fundamental questions of ethical philosophy to a specific political issue. .

Lincoln-Douglas Debate places primacy on the ability of debaters to make original, coherent, and philosophically persuasive arguments on issues of ethics. Students should familiarize themselves with the work of major ethical philosophers and should inform their cases with real-world examples and analyses. Students must identify quotations, borrowed analyses, systems of thought that they use, and statistics.

Interpretation of the Resolution

The cornerstone of Lincoln-Douglas Debate is the productive dialogue between two differing moral interpretations of an important issue.

Each debater should present a case in which the resolution is interpreted fairly, and the complexities of an issue are acknowledged through the acceptance of some harms and risks. A good debater should be able to argue against unfair definitions of terms, or the imbalanced assignment of burdens. More specifically, debaters should present a persuasive moral position that they can defend from criticism and use to argue against an opposing case, without falling into self-contradiction or denying the complexity of the issues at stake.

During Lincoln-Douglas Debate

I. Each debate involves two debaters, one of whom argues the affirmative side, the other the negative.
A. The affirmative speaker must present a position agreeing with the resolution.
B. The negative debater must disagree with the resolution's statement.
1. In circumstances where a resolution presents two alternatives (e.g., "the sanctity of life should be valued above the quality of life"), a negative side should argue the alternative to which the affirmative side has given second priority (e.g. "the quality of life should be should be valued above the sanctity of life").
2. A negative may choose a third option and argue both alternatives provided by the resolution.
3. A negative debater can also argue a "critique" against a resolution in its entirety.
4. Because productive conflict, or "clash," is key to a Lincoln-Douglas debate, each debater should be able to make a positive case for their position and values, as opposed to a purely negative attack on those of their opponent.
II. Lincoln-Douglas is a fundamentally value-oriented (as opposed to a policy-focused) debate. Judges must remember that debaters are not required to propose "plans" for dealing with given situations. The role of debaters is to argue a moral position, and to use logic and ethical reasoning to do so.

Lincoln-Douglas Debate Format


Lincoln-Douglas Debate adheres to the following format:

Speaker (Speech) Time
Affirmative Constructive 6 Minutes
Negative-led Cross-Examination 3 Minutes
Negative Constructive / Rebuttal 7 Minutes
Affirmative-led Cross-Examination 3 Minutes
Affirmative Rebuttal 6 Minutes
Negative Rebuttal / Crystallization 6 Minutes
Affirmative Crystallization 3 Minutes

(4 Minutes of cumulative prep time)

Each debater should be allotted a certain amount of preparation time (generally, a total of three to four minutes), which they can choose to employ prior to any speech they give and is ideally used for preparing arguments and studying notes they've taken during a round.

Special Considerations


In cross-examination, the speaker whose opponent has just finished speaking should ask questions. Demanding "yes" or "no" answers is not permitted, and the debater being questioned should be allowed an opportunity to reply. However, the debater asking questions may cut off a reply if their opponent appears to be stalling, or if an important point has been reached. Throughout cross-examination, both speakers should face the audience directly (not each other), and should remain courteous.


In each rebuttal, the speaker must defend his/her own case from previous attacks made by the opponent, and attack the opponent's case itself. An argument left untouched by the opponent does not necessarily mean that the debater has agreed with that point. However, a failure to touch upon all points may be important, to the degree that "dropped" points cannot be defended later in the debate.

Rebuttals (arguments against those of the opponent) may consist of elaboration of points already mentioned, or of points newly introduced, such as arguments whose logic and examples are distinct from the points that have preceded them. However, concerns of fairness demand that no new points should be brought up after the first affirmative rebuttal, and judge should disregard such points. If a point is not defended from an attack in any given speech, it cannot be defended for the first time several speeches later.


Debaters should crystallize their major arguments, summarizing what they feel have been the crucial areas of conflict throughout the round, and demonstrate how their side has fulfilled its obligations as per the resolution.

The Role of the Judge

For guidelines on judging any speech or debate event, please refer to Judge Accreditation Process and Standards.

Before accepting the assignment to judge a debate, a judge must agree:

  • To conduct the debate on the basis of the rules of debating and judging.
  • To enforce all rules which fall within the judge's province.
  • Not to add, enforce, or base a decision on any rules not included in these rules of debating and judging.

A judge's decision should be based on the content of the debate, including the substantive arguments presented and the evidence used to support them.

With regard to Lincoln-Douglas Debate, there is no preferred style of speaking. Clarity of communication is the primary goal, and speakers may use sheets of paper (instead of note cards) or read portions of the speech.

Structure is generally more important than communication style as it determines whether the speaker has presented clear arguments.

A judge (or judge's delegate) must offer time signals to debaters.

After the final speech, the judge will deliberate and reach a decision regarding the winner of the debate, and the points to be assigned to each speaker. The judge will then complete the debate ballot.

In some competitions, tournament administrators may permit judges to disclose their decisions and offer oral critiques to debaters.

In these cases, the judge may announce the outcome of the debate and provide constructive feedback to the debaters following completion of the debate ballot. If the judge provides oral comments to the debaters, these comments must be timed and may not be more than 5 minutes before the judge delivers the debate ballot to the tournament staff. Under no circumstances can the judge change the decision or points based on any discussion with the teams involved. In all cases, a judge should consult with tournament administrators to make sure that disclosing decisions and offering oral critiques are permitted for that competition.

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