Tuscaloosa, Ala. - The college students began arriving a little before lunch at Calvary Baptist Church, far more than usual for a local election. The poll workers knew immediately: the Machine was here.
The school year at the University of Alabama has barely gotten started, and already the campus has found itself in a charged self-examination on issues of politics, power and race, with the exposure of tenacious segregation among fraternities and sororities drawing national attention.
But the turmoil began some weeks earlier. It raised the specter of the Machine, a secret society representing a league of select and almost exclusively white fraternities and sororities, which has been around for a century or more. Once a breeding ground for state political leaders, the Machine (it has long been known by that nickname) today maintains a solid hold on student government through an effective, and critics say coercive, brand of old-fashioned organization politics.
But the Machine’s apparent involvement in an August school board election, a rare appearance in municipal politics, has prompted a lawsuit, accusations of voter fraud and an outcry that in many ways primed the campus for the larger storm over inclusion and tradition that is now taking place.
The race for the Tuscaloosa City Board of Education was already atypical. Business interests had announced a desire to remake the board, saying the rate of progress had been insufficient in a system of 10,000 students, most of them low-income. Fueled by business-financed political action committees, the challengers outraised the incumbents 10-to-1, reporting by far the most money raised in a Tuscaloosa school board race. Most of the challengers nonetheless lost.
In District 4, however, the challenger was Cason Kirby, a 26-year-old former student government president one year out of law school.
“I really decided it was someplace I could make a difference,” Kirby said in an interview. He acknowledged that he had never been to a school board meeting before his campaign, but said he had growing concerns about the state of the city’s schools and was encouraged by civic and business leaders to run.
He also had a natural base of support. “The limos and party bus are running constantly,” read one of numerous similar emails circulated around Machine-affiliated sororities on Election Day. Free drinks were promised at local bars for those wearing ‘I Voted’ stickers. Sorority leaders were careful to emphasize that they were not endorsing a particular candidate but encouraged members to wear Cason Kirby T-shirts to the polls.
The numbers bear out their influence. Of the 369 voters registered in the district this year, 269 registered during one week in mid-August, and 94 percent of those newly registered voters were 21 or younger. Kirby won the race 416 to 329 votes.
His opponent, Kelly Horwitz, filed suit this month, claiming that many of the voters were ineligible, including 11 unrelated people who listed the same residence - a small, single-family house near the football stadium. The university president, Dr. Judy L. Bonner, said in a statement that after “the courts and appropriate state and/or local agencies have completed their investigation,” the university might conduct its own inquiry.
Kirby denied condoning or knowing firsthand of any voting improprieties, saying Horwitz had also campaigned on campus. “College students have a right to participate in local elections,” he said.
Legal issues aside, faculty members and others expressed outrage that an exclusive campus group like the Machine appeared to have brought its well-known tactics to bear in an election concerning a school system with a volatile racial history.
Lee Garrison, the newly elected chairman of the school board, called such outrage “the height of hypocrisy.”
Garrison ran for Tuscaloosa City Council as a college senior in 1997, and he, too, won with the support of hundreds of fraternity and sorority members (his election was also challenged, unsuccessfully). He described organized Greek-system voting at Alabama as simply a kind of party politics and, more pointedly, questioned why the mobilization of sororities and fraternities was being challenged and not the get-out-the-vote operations of the teachers’ union and black political organizations in Tuscaloosa.
“There is no difference,” he said.
A possible distinction with the Machine is that its members refrain from discussing it explicitly or even acknowledging that it exists. Founded around 1905 as a chapter of Theta Nu Epsilon, a national fraternity, the group described itself in a 1989 statement in the university archives as “a brotherhood pledged to assist the business world,” with members who “go on to become lawyers, attorney generals, governors and senators.” This kind of influence is what prompts its critics to take it more seriously than just any secret campus group.
The university administration did not respond to repeated inquiries about its view of the Machine’s role on campus.
Steve Flowers, a political columnist, former state legislator and University of Alabama graduate, said the Machine’s political influence had waned. “When I was growing up, that was the way to go to Congress,” he said. “You went to the University of Alabama, got into student government, got involved in the Machine, practiced law a little bit in your hometown, and you went to Washington.”
Nowadays, Flowers said, there are not many Machine alumni in the state Legislature and almost none in Washington.
According to current and former members of Machine-affiliated Greek organizations, each of the 28 fraternities and sororities associated with the Machine (many Greek organizations on campus are not) sends a pair of representatives to a secret group, often referred to as “going downstairs,” because the group meets in the basement of a fraternity house. Members decide which candidates to back for student government, homecoming queen and several honor societies. The fraternity-and-sorority rank and file are informed of the choices and put into action on Election Day. Their choices rarely lose.
Accounts of intimidation tactics attributed to the Machine over the decades include cross burnings, threats and boycotts, although students these days speak mostly of social pressure, both implicit and overt and at times intense. Despite changes that the university has made to student government - like expanding polling days and switching to online voting - and despite the fact that Machine-affiliated organizations account for less than one-third of Alabama’s student population, its candidates have continued to win, if not as decisively as in the past.
“There is a lot of apathy,” said Kendra Key, who in 2009 came within a few hundred votes of being the first black woman to be student government president. Students, she said, “feel the Greek system is going to dominate the elections, so why even waste the effort?”
When the Machine has faltered, it has adjusted. Cleophus Thomas Jr. beat a Machine candidate to become Alabama’s first black student government president in 1976, in large part because of the votes of sorority members. Not long after, sororities were allowed into the Machine for the first time. There have been few non-Machine presidents, and no black presidents, since.
The intersection between the Machine and race is complicated. Key suggested that the marginalization of black student representation was largely a byproduct; the Machine represents a white bloc in a historically segregated Greek system, so its success inevitably means white control. But others say race is more central to the Machine and have tied the election controversy to the storm that arose last week when The Crimson White, the student newspaper, reported that a superbly qualified black woman had failed to receive a single bid from Alabama’s traditionally white sororities.
“They all seem of a piece to me,” said Stacy Morgan, an American studies professor who has begun pushing, with other faculty members, for comprehensive changes to address campus-election procedures and the segregation of student organizations. “It’s a kind of exclusiveness, a kind of insularity.”
Thomas, now a lawyer in Anniston, Ala., and a former university trustee, agrees. Like many alumni, he was not surprised by the revelations about segregation on campus. But he found the Machine’s troubled run in municipal politics remarkable indeed.
“They’re usually much more sophisticated than that,” he said. “This may be the ineptness that results from having no real competition.”