On a nice night in lake country in a town of about 1,200 people, several hundred people gathered to hear Morris native Jennifer Nelson and three other participants debate the questions To vote or not: does it matter?
Nelson convinced the majority of that audience that voting does matter as she won the Great American Think-Off for the second time since 2014. The June 8 event was held at the Cultural Center in New York Mills.
"It's a reminder that big ideas happen everywhere," Nelson said of the event.
Philosophy and debate aren't confined to academics but are found in the personal experiences of all, Nelson said.
Nelson's argument was rooted in her personal experiences, including her job as a research consultant with the DFL Caucus in the Minnesota House of Representatives and her two grandmothers and a great grandmother, who were born when women weren't allowed to vote.
Contestants must first submit an essay to the Think-Off. Four essays and their writers advance to the Think-Off debate. Nelson and a retired professor were on the side of voting matters while another professor and instructor were selected on the side of voting does not matter. In the first round, the two with the same view debate each other and the audience selects the winner from each category.
"You don't know the questions in advance," Nelson said.
She's always been a quick thinker. Her years in speech and theater at Morris Area High School also helped her in the debate.
Nelson said sharing personal experiences with how voting matters were critical in convincing the audience.
She shared a story of how a woman worked with the Legislature to close a loophole in the state's rape laws which said a husband could not be charged with raping his wife. The Legislature changed the law, Nelson said. "That vote mattered," Nelson said.
And so did the votes for the people who elected the legislators who voted to change the law, Nelson said.
Nelson watched the debate between the no voters and identified points she could counter in their arguments.
Her final debate opponent argued that because so many people are disenfranchised, voting doesn't matter. Nelson countered that disenfranchisement wouldn't matter if voting didn't matter.
It's a bit like a boxing match, with debaters seeing openings to land contact. But, "you need to control your narrative," Nelson said. She couldn't forget to return to her core argument.
That core included voting is not just an individual act but it is a collective act. Voting can be an expression of empathy, Nelson said.
"She knew her stuff. She came prepared," Nelson's mom, Diane Nelson said. "She did a wonderful job."
The Great American Think-Off will release its 2020 question on Jan. 1. Essays must be submitted by April 15.
To watch the Think-Off, click this link: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=nE77gyVtKDc