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Lincoln–Douglas debate

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Lincoln–Douglas debate

Lincoln–Douglas debate (commonly abbreviated as LD Debate, or simply LD) is a type of one-on-one debate practiced mainly in the United States at the high school level. It is sometimes also called values debate because the format traditionally places a heavy emphasis on logic, ethical values, and philosophy. The Lincoln–Douglas Debate format is named for the 1858 Lincoln–Douglas Debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas, because their debates focused on slavery and the morals, values, and logic behind it. LD Debates are used by the National Speech and Debate Association, or NSDA (formerly known as the National Forensics League, or NFL) competitions, and also widely used in related debate leagues such as the National Christian Forensics and Communication Association, the National Catholic Forensic League, the National Educational Debate Association, the Texas UIL, Stoa USA and their affiliated regional organizations. The vast majority of tournaments use the current NSDA resolution.

In some schools, high school Speech & Debate is a for-credit class. Inter-school tournaments are held on weekends, but they are supplemental to the class and training for them is sometimes curricular. In other areas, debate may be a school-sponsored team similar to football or basketball which has practice after school, rather than being part of the curriculum; or debate teams may be organized as a club activity with little formal involvement on the part of the school. Some dedicated debaters attend tournaments without any school support at all, though this is only an option if there is an active local/regional debate circuit or the debater has enough money to attend national tournaments.


  • Traditional case structures 1
  • Topics 2
  • Progressive case structures 3
    • The Narrative 3.1
    • Kritiks 3.2
    • Counterplans 3.3
    • Plans 3.4
  • Judging 4
  • Tournament organization 5
  • Tournament competition 6
  • Rankings 7
  • Format 8
  • Resolutions 9
  • See also 10
  • References 11
  • External links 12

Traditional case structures

Cases are logical syllogisms that attempt to prove the resolution morally permissible (Affirmative) or morally incorrect (Negative) . The typical (though not mandated) case is divided into a framework, which outlines the conditions for discussing the resolution, and contentions. The most essential part of the framework is the value structure, which is composed of an ultimate value (often called the value premise) that the case attempts to demonstrate the resolution action achieves/is in accordance with, and a value criterion. The value criterion is a way to attain, achieve and quantify the nebulous value. In most modern NFL resolutions, a value is often stated in the resolution. For example, "Resolved: Just governments ought to ensure food security for its citizens." Due to the fact that Justice is used in the resolution, it is an appealing value for many debaters. Morality is a common value due to its inclusion in many resolutions, followed by justice, social welfare, or other values depending on the topic. The framework also may contain definitions for purposes of clarity and/or excluding certain lines of argumentation, and preemptions/"spikes" that attempt to preclude certain arguments that one's opponent is expected to make. A narrow definition can be a spike. The contention(s), of which this type of case must have at least one, links the resolution to the value structure. A proper contention necessarily has a claim, which summarizes the argument, at least one warrant, which is a reason the claim is true, and an impact, which explains the importance of the argument—or specifically why this argument meets the value criterion. In addition, contentions often include sub-points.

For example, a negative case for the resolution "Resolved: A just society ought not use the death penalty as form of punishment" could have a value of justice, a value criterion of crime deterrence, and then contentions that demonstrate that the death penalty serves as a uniquely powerful deterrent (which would require statistical and possibly psychological evidence.) An affirmative case could have a value of justice, a criterion of respecting human worth, and contentions arguing that killing human beings is inhumane for any reason regardless of their actions. It could also argue that all presently available methods of execution are inhumane (lethal injection is believed to be physically painful and psychologically traumatizing, while hanging, electrocution, and gassing certainly are). The debaters would then argue whether practical crime deterrence or adherence to the principle of human worth is more important to justice, and if each other's contentions sufficiently meet even their own value criterion. (The value is not usually contested anymore, since both debaters generally share similar ones.)


Unlike Public Forum, Lincoln Douglas topics are changed every two months.

•October/November 2015: Resolved- In the United States criminal justice system, jury nullification ought to be used in the face of perceived injustice.

•August/September 2015: Resolved- Adolescents ought to have the right to make autonomous medical choices.

•March/April 2015:Resolved- Just governments ought to ensure food security for their citizens.

•January/February 2015: Resolved- Just governments ought to require that employers pay a living wage.

•November/December 2014: Resolved- The "right to be forgotten" from Internet searches ought to be a civil right.

•September/ October 2014: Resolved- A just society ought to presume consent for organ procurement from the deceased.

   Novice Topic: Civil disobedience in a democracy is morally justified.

Progressive case structures

Progressive Case structures are popular in many parts of the United States. In many areas and debate districts, progressive case structure is frowned upon in Lincoln–Douglas debate due to its unorthodox nature. In fact, having a progressive case structure would be grounds for attack in certain debate districts.

The Narrative

The narrative is a debater's attempt to win over the judge using emotional stories relating to the resolution. For instance, a debater affirming a debate resolution on food security may describe a story about an impoverished, hungry family.


Although the kritik originated in policy debate, its use in Lincoln–Douglas debate is becoming increasingly accepted as a legitimate argument in certain debate districts and states. A kritik seeks to challenge an underlying mindset, usually from the perspective of critical theory. There are a few different types of kritiks. The resolutional kritik argues that a fundamental assumption of the resolution is flawed or offensive and thus it can't or shouldn't be debated or proven true. For example, In the January–February 2014 topic, Resolved: Developing countries should prioritize environmental protection over resource extraction when the two are in conflict, a kritik of the resolution would be that the resolution uses the words "resource extraction", opening itself to an anthropocentrism kritik by assuming the world to be a resource for human use and degrading the moral character of nature. This kritik would further argue that an anthropocentric mindset would justify major harms, which, in order to avoid, would require the win go to the side presenting the criticism. The discourse kritik, argues that the effects of an action one's opponent has taken during or in relation to the round should outweigh consideration of the resolution. An example of a common discourse kritik is a gendered language kritik, which could be used if an opponent's case has been written exclusively containing the male pronoun. Another example is if the opponent uses the "F" word in or out of the round, which opens the way to a "bad discourse" kritik.

A kritik is generally composed of three parts, the link, impact, and alternative. In order to make a criticism, there has to be a link, or reason. A link can be a certain phrase in the resolution, something the opponent said, something conceded in cross-examination, etc. The link opens the gate to the criticism. Now that the link to the mindset being criticized has been established, there has to be a significant harm linked to that mindset, or impact. For example, if an opponent links in to statism, a harm or impact of this would be that statism justifies nuclear war or rights violations. An impact explains why the mindset is bad. In general, the alternative provides solvency for the harms proposed. Most alternatives look something like, "reject the negative," "reject statism," or something along those lines. If a kritik criticizes the ethics of the round, then an acceptable alternative would propose another type of ethic that should be used for reasons like better discourse.


Sometimes even negative debaters consider the status quo too hard to defend. A counterplan allows the negative to defend a separate advocacy that directly competes with the affirmative's.


Sometimes, the affirmative advocates for a plan, which is a certain specified action which falls under the resolution. For example, with the January/February 2015 Topic (Resolved: Just governments ought to require that employers pay a living wage) a plan could have been to bring the Asia Floor Wage to a living wage level. These arguments are often countered by theory (see below) or topicality. Plans originated from policy debate. Despite the growing popularity of affirmative counter plans, they are unacceptable in certain debate districts. In some states, the ballots used by judges instruct them to disregard affirmative counter plans. The only type of case that is virtually universally accepted is the value/value criterion/contention structure, and even that has its detractors.

Recently, methods of winning the round have become prominent that cannot be classified as true cases, because they are used as a semi-independent part of or in addition to the case proper, and do not advocate an extensively developed position. These include the "a priori" or "prima facie" argument which attempt to demonstrate that the resolution is true/false outside of the typical syllogistic model, most commonly by collapsing it into a tautology or presenting some reason why it's nonsensical. "Theory" debate, which says that an opponent's argument or style of argumentation (e.g. talking too fast or interpreting the resolution in a certain way) is unfair or uneducational and explains why fairness or educational considerations supersedes the resolutional evaluation, has also proliferated. Like atypical cases, the merit of these types of arguments is heatedly contested, although both are common on the national circuit.


Judges fall under many categories, the most common of which are:

  • Lay judge (a judge that does not have experience in debate of any form, and is usually only there to fill a spot for a team that needs to bring more judges, and are partial to basic and slow arguments)
  • Flow judge (a judge who seeks to minimize intervention in the round, accepts progressive LD strategies, understands spreading, and votes only off the arguments on the flow, this is the most common type of judge to see on the national circuit)
  • Classical/traditional judge (looks strongly on the ethics of the case and the philosophy that is behind it, especially when it comes to the Value structure. They will not look highly upon spread (which is the debate term for speed reading during speeches) or progressive debate tactics like counterplan and kritik)
  • Policy judges on the other hand look at all forms of arguments including those that come from policy debate, policy judges tend to be flow judges as well and are very open to spread and progressive debate tactics, ex. counter plan, kritik, etc. ).

Experienced students are usually allowed to judge in the novice division. There are usually four or five elimination rounds in which the participators are marked by speaker points (0-30 is the speaker point range, however 26 and below are usually considered bad with 27.5 being a fairly average speaker) and by a win or loss. Comments tend to be given by the judge to the debaters at the conclusion of the round. Comments are also written on the ballot, which is the document that the judge writes their decision on, as well as the speaker points awarded to each debater. Judges are often told before the tournament whether or not they are allowed to disclose to the participators, who won the round immediately following the decision (speaker points are never disclosed). However, that being said, some judges will never disclose and other will regardless of what the instruction were.

In some regional or national circuit tournaments with multiple divisions, inexperienced judges are most commonly placed in the Novice division, while the Junior Varsity and Varsity divisions enjoy more experienced judges. Judges are assigned to a specific division based on their experience and some other criteria, and are only eligible to judge debaters within that division (a judge assigned to judge novices cannot judge varsity). This is known as a pool; each division has its own pool of judges. At most national circuit tournaments, the judges within the varsity pool are often ranked beforehand from 1 to 5 by the debaters and their coaches as part of "mutual judge preferences" (MJP). A 1 is the best possible ranking, a 5 is a judge with a conflict of interest regarding the debater, and a 6 is a "strike", who may never judge the debater, teams are usually allowed 1-2 "strikes" per tournament. During the tournament, the tabulation staff will attempt to give each round a mutual judge (i.e. a judge who is a 1 for both sides). Different debaters "pref" different judges depending on their past experiences and styles. The most preferred judges are usually former debaters who are now college students serving as assistant coaches, as they know the modern norms of debate well.

Other regional circuits more heavily emphasize the rhetorical skills required in front of inexperienced judges, and recruit "lay" judges from the community. These judges are typically concerned citizens or parents of debaters from the school hosting the tournament or a participating school. Some circuits require all LD judges for rounds above the novice level to meet training requirements. Another option is to use lay judges for the rounds, but offer them a brief training or tutorial beforehand to prepare and inform them about the nature of the debate.

Tournament organization

Many tournaments offer two or three divisions of competition in LD: novice, intermediate, and advanced. Novice is exclusively for new debaters in their first year of competition, intermediate is for talented novices or debaters in their second year of competition, and advanced is for experienced debaters.

A typical one-day tournament holds three or four rounds. Each debater advocates each side an equal number of times or one side once more than the other, depending on whether the number of rounds is even or odd. Multi-day tournaments have five to eight preliminary rounds (usually abbreviated to "prelims") in which all debaters participate. The debaters with the best win/loss record from this set of rounds then advance (called "breaking" or "clearing") to a single-elimination stage of "outrounds" that determines the eventual champion. All debaters present have the hypothetical potential to "hit", or square off against, any other competitor in their field at the tournament, though if at all possible debaters are prohibited from hitting members of their own team and hitting someone they have previously hit earlier at the same tournament again. Similarly, judges who have already judged a debater are not supposed to judge them again in preliminaries. In contrast, a tournament in which each competitor must debate every other competitor is called a "round robin". These tend to be very small, and specific participants are invited to attend.

Most LD tournaments are "power matched" (also called "power paired" or just "powered"). In this system, after the first two rounds (often referred to as presets, as they are randomly paired beforehand), the pairings for the third round are decided on the basis that people with the same record (known as being in the same bracket) debate. For example, a 2‑0 would hit another 2‑0, a 1‑1 would hit another 1‑1, etc. Speaker points determine who hits who within each bracket (the 2‑0 with the highest speaks of any 2‑0 would hit the 2‑0 with the lowest speaks, second-highest hits second-lowest, etc.) After the third round, the debaters' cumulative records and speaks (rather than the results of their last round) place them in their brackets. Local tournaments sometimes use randomized brackets throughout their whole duration. In "elimination rounds" after the primary four to six (or even eight) preliminary rounds, the top "seed" will "hit" the lowest "seed". Seeding is determined first by preliminary round records and then by the amount of speaker points awarded by judges in preliminary rounds, with various tiebreakers (total number of opponent wins, speaker points after the highest and lowest given to each debater have been subtracted, judge variance, randomly assigned number, etc.) that follow if the statistics remain even (key word- IF)

Tournament competition

Most high school debaters participate in local tournaments in their city or school district, and travel to other areas of the state occasionally. Hundreds of such tournaments are held each weekend at high schools throughout the United States during the debate season.

A relatively small subset (perhaps a few hundred) of high school debaters, mostly from elite public and private schools, travel around the country to tournaments on the "national circuit". The current nine largest and most prestigious/competitive national circuit tournaments are (in no particular order) the Glenbrooks, held at Glenbrook North and Glenbrook South High Schools in the Chicago suburbs; the New York City Invitational at the Bronx High School of Science; the Harvard Invitational at Harvard University in Boston, Mass; the California Invitational at UC Berkeley, the Greenhill Fall Classic hosted by Greenhill School in Addison, Texas; the Heart of Texas Invitational at St. Mark's School in Dallas, Texas; The Harvard-Westlake Tournament (formerly VBT), held at UCLA in Los Angeles; the Mid-America Cup at Valley High School in West Des Moines, Iowa; and the Minneapple at Apple Valley High School in Minnesota. There are a few other prestigious national tournaments that cap the number of debaters from each school and total number of schools allowed to enter to preserve competitive integrity, and because there might simply be not enough space available. National circuit tournaments are very large events that typically draw 120-200 varsity LD competitors, in addition to LDers in the novice and jv divisions, policy debaters, public forum debaters, speech participants, judges, coaches, etc. Some of the biggest attract near a thousand total participants. Regionally significant tournaments often also draw over a hundred participants. National circuit debate is generally characterized by its extremely fast manner of speaking (300 wpm is not considered an uncommon speed to read a case at), use of jargon, and emphasis on strength/depth of argumentation rather than rhetoric. However, some debaters have been successful on the national circuit without conforming to these conventions. The national circuit is mostly composed of traditional "power schools" with historically strong programs (i.e. Valley High School in Iowa, Scarsdale High School in New York, Greenhill School in Texas, or Walt Whitman High School in Maryland). The national circuit and its accompanying style of debate are sometimes criticized for being exclusionary. In particular, critics argue that national circuit "power" programs encourage jargon and esoteric norms not as a means of improving discourse, but as a means of deterring competition from the uninitiated.[1]

As the debate season comes to a close, national championship tournaments (collectively referred to as the postseason) are held to bring together the best debaters from around the nation to compete against one another. These tournaments require reaching certain levels of success at a qualifying tournaments throughout the season.

The unofficial national circuit championship is the Tournament of Champions (LD) (TOC) held at the University of Kentucky. To be eligible for the TOC, debaters must collect at least two bids at various designated tournaments held throughout the year. (They cannot be considered qualifying tournaments because they technically exist independent of TOC authority and are significant in their own right.) These tournaments are granted a certain number of bids by the director of the TOC (Prof. Angela Reed) with the input of her advisory committee that debaters receive upon reaching a certain level in the elimination rounds. The level of elimination round at which bids are awarded is subjective, but depends chiefly on the size of the tournament, the perceived collective quality of the debaters in attendance, and the quality of the tournament itself (whether it is run well or not). There are fluctuations in tournaments' bid levels and the tournaments that have bids in the first place, but the major tournaments have very secure bids. For example, the Dowling Catholic Paradigm held at Dowling Catholic High School in West Des Moines, Iowa is a medium-sized tournament attended by debaters of all experience levels mostly from the Midwest, and therefore receives four bids, awarded to the debaters who reach the semifinal round of the tournament. The Glenbrooks tournament, considered among the most competitive regular season tournaments in the country, is attended by approximately 200 experienced debaters and has for many years had 16 bids to hand out to competitors who reach the octofinal round.

For non-national circuit debaters, either the National Speech and Debate Tournament of the National Forensic League or the Grand National Tournament of the National Catholic Forensic League is the national tournament of their sponsoring organization. Competitors qualify to these national tournaments by placing in the top spots at district-level tournaments held specifically as qualifiers. The number of competitors in each district determines the number of competitors that will qualify to the national tournament. Most NFL districts have two to four, but some NCFL districts have six.


There have been several attempts in the past to create a cohesive national ranking system. One was Fantasy Debate, which ran from 2010-2012 but is now closed.

Currently functioning ranking systems include the Premier Debate Today Coaches Poll, the Briefly ELO rankings, and The three are aggregated in the Composite Poll on PDT.


LD debate follows the basic time schedule 6-3-7-3-4-6-3. Each debater gets thirteen minutes of speaking time, and rounds take approximately 40 minutes. Each debater receives four to five minutes of prep time to use between speeches however they like. While the amount of prep time is at the tournament's discretion, the NFL advocated three minutes until midway through the 2006-2007 season, when it decided on four. Some tournaments, most notably the TOC, choose to give debaters 5 minutes. Some tournaments also allow the use of flex prep, which melds the cross-examination time and prep time together to create a 6-8 minute block that can be used for questions and/or prep. Asking cross-examination questions during prep time is generally accepted on the national circuit. Most speeches start with an "order" which states which order the flows will be addressed in before the time starts (i.e. "It's going to be AC, theory, NC, DA").

Time (minutes) Abbreviation Speech Description
6 AC Affirmative Constructive The Affirmative reads a pre-written case.
3 CX Cross Examination The Negative asks the Affirmative questions about the Affirmative case.
7 NC (1NR) Negative Constructive (and first negative Rebuttal) The Negative (almost always) reads a pre-written case and (almost always) moves on to address the Affirmative case.
3 CX Cross Examination The Affirmative asks the Negative questions.
4 1AR First Affirmative Rebuttal The Affirmative addresses both their opponent's case and their own. This speech is considered by many debaters to be the most difficult.
6 NR (2NR) The Negative Rebuttal The Negative addresses the arguments of the previous speech and summarizes the round for the judge.
3 2AR The Second Affirmative Rebuttal The Affirmative addresses the arguments of the previous speech and summarizes the round for the judge.


NFL resolutions (topics to be debated) change every two months. They always propose that a specific policy or issue (the "resolutional policy/action") conforms to a certain principle (the "value"). The affirmative must uphold the resolution, and the negative must show that the action does not conform to the principle or that the affirmative has not shown how it does so (there are different schools of thought as to the negative's burden).

Ten possible resolutions for the upcoming year are chosen by a wording committee and released at the NFL National Tournament. Anybody can submit a resolution for consideration to the wording committee. Each coach in the country receives a ballot with a copy of the official magazine of the NFL, the Rostrum, and votes for a topic for each two-month slot. Voting can also be done online. Until the 2007-2008 season each coach could only rank the topics on one list, with the one receiving the overall highest ranking becoming the National Tournament topic, the second highest becoming the March–April topic, the third highest Jan/Feb topic, etc. However, because of the prominence of the Jan-Feb slot (the TOC and several other tournaments not actually in January or February elect to use this topic, resulting in it being jokingly referred to as the "six-month topic"), coaches now select their three highest choices for each two-month slot.

The resolutions of the NCFL National Tournament, UIL (which includes LD debate as one of its academic contests), and NCFCA are selected independently of the NFL resolutions.

Recent resolutions include:

  • Resolved: Adolescents ought to have the right to make autonomous medical choices. (September/October 2015)
  • Resolved: Just government ought to ensure food security for their citizens. (March/April 2015)
  • Resolved: Just governments ought to require that employers pay a living wage. (January/February 2015)
  • Resolved: The "right to be forgotten" from internet searches ought to be a civil right. (November/December 2014)
  • Resolved: A just society ought to presume consent for organ procurement from the deceased. (September/October 2014)
  • Resolved: Placing political conditions on humanitarian aid to foreign countries is unjust. (March/April 2014)
  • Resolved: Developing countries should prioritize environmental protection over resource extraction when the two are in conflict. (January/February 2014)
  • Resolved: In the United States criminal justice system, truth-seeking ought to take precedence over attorney-client privilege. (November/December 2013)
  • Resolved: In a democracy, voting ought to be compulsory. (September/October 2013)
  • Resolved: Civil disobedience in a democracy is morally justified. (Novice September/October 2013)
  • Resolved: The United States is justified in intervening in the internal political processes of other countries to attempt to stop human rights abuses. (March/April 2013)
  • Resolved: Rehabilitation ought to be valued above retribution in the United States criminal justice system. (January/February 2013)
  • Resolved: The United States ought to guarantee universal health care for its citizens. (November/December 2012)
  • Resolved: The United States ought to extend to non-citizens accused of terrorism the same constitutional due process protections it grants to citizens. (September/October 2012)
  • Resolved: A government has the obligation to lessen the economic gap between its rich and poor citizens. (NFL Nationals 2012)
  • Resolved: Targeted killing is a morally permissible foreign policy tool. (March/April 2012)
  • Resolved: It is morally permissible for victims to use deadly force as a deliberate response to repeated domestic violence.(January/February 2012)
  • Resolved: Individuals have a moral obligation to assist people in need. (November/December 2011)
  • Resolved: Justice requires the recognition of animal rights. (September/October 2011)
  • Resolved: When forced to choose, a just government ought to prioritize universal human rights over its national interest. (NFL Nationals 2011)
  • Resolved: The United States has a moral obligation to promote just governance in developing nations. (NCFL Nationals 2011)
  • Resolved: The United States is justified in using private military firms abroad to pursue its military objectives. (March/April 2011)
  • Resolved: In the United States, juveniles charged with violent felonies ought to be treated as adults in the criminal justice system. (January/February 2011)
  • Resolved: The abuse of illegal drugs ought to be treated as a matter of public health, not of criminal justice. (November/December 2010)
  • Resolved: States ought not possess nuclear weapons. (September/October 2010)
  • Resolved: That in the pursuit of justice, due process ought to be valued above the discovery of fact. (School year 2011-2012, NCFCA)
  • Resolved: That a government's legitimacy is more determined by its respect for popular sovereignty than individual rights. (School year 2010-2011, Stoa, NCFCA)
  • Resolved: When in conflict, personal freedom ought to be valued above economic security. (School year 2011-2012, Stoa)
  • Resolved: Privacy is undervalued. (School year 2012-2013, Stoa)
  • Resolved: The United States has a moral obligation to mitigate international conflicts. (School year 2013-2014, Stoa)
  • Resolved: When in conflict, an individual’s freedom of speech should be valued above a community’s moral standards. (Resolution One, School year 2014-2015, Stoa)
  • Resolved: In Federal jurisprudence, the letter of the law ought to be prioritized over the spirit of the law. (Resolution Two, School year 2014-2015, Stoa)
  • Resolved: In formal education, liberal arts ought to be valued above practical skills. (Resolution One, School Year 2015-2016, Stoa)
  • Resolved: Developing countries ought to prioritize economic growth over environmental protection. (Resolution Two, School Year 2015-2016, Stoa)

See also


  1. ^ Jason Baldwin, Drinking From Our Own Skulls: The Rhetorical Inversion of Lincoln Douglas Debate, Rostrum (January 2003)

External links

  • Premier Debate Today - National-circuit focused news and analysis by Premier Debate and guest writers
  • Briefly - Debate news, discussion, and commentary by Victory Briefs
  • NSD Update – LD national circuit results, discussion, and commentary site
  • National Forensic League website
  • National Catholic Forensic League website
  • National Historical Site – Complete Transcripts Of All Seven Debates
  • – National circuit discussion forum
  • NSD Videos - Archive of recent LD rounds
  • National Debate Forum - Major national circuit debate camp
  • Premier Debate Institute - Major national circuit debate camp held at the University of Minnesota
  • Texas Debate Collective - National circuit debate camp
  • VBI - LD debate camp, held in Los Angeles and Chicago
  • NDCA Wiki - National Debate Coaches Association Case Wiki
  • Speech and Debate Coach - Tools that will help you compete at the championship level
  • Intro to LD Debate Format
  • Southwest Speech and Debate Institute - Speech and debate camp, held at Arizona State University
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