"The Machine" Joseph Bryant The Crimson White March 14, 2001
It's a secret organization within a secret society, some even deny its existence. But in 14 out of the last 15 races, its members have anointed the person who will serve as the Student Government Association president.
In 1928, editors of The Crimson White named the coalition of sororities and fraternities the Machine for its efficiency in dominating campus politics.
Members of Machine sororities say everything is provided to them to make voting easy. The night before elections, Machine ballots are secretly delivered to each Machine house and each greek member is supposed to take one with them the next day and vote the straight ticket. The traditional meeting occurred in sorority and fraternity houses Monday night.
"There was a mandatory meeting at which index cards were given out to each girl. These cards have exactly who we are supposed to vote for," said 'Susan,' a member of a Machine affiliated sorority. "It is all listed on the card so we won't get it wrong. They already know what college we are in so they know which senator we need to vote for."
The Machine has a legacy at the University older than football, Big Al and even the SGA. Officially known as Theta Nu Epsilon, the group was formed in 1888, 26 years before the first University student government was established.
According to students and alumni, the primary purpose of the Machine is to get selected greek candidates elected to student offices. The organization is composed of member fraternity and sororities - each sending two representatives to Machine meetings, usually held off campus.
"It's mainly about gearing up for the elections and making decisions early on," said, 'Emma' a University alum who was a freshmen member of Delta Zeta sorority in 1986. "The goal is to run campus politics, but the real reason they want to run campus politics is so they, themselves, can run politics in Alabama. It's a big stepping stone."
Former Machine-endorsed SGA presidents have risen to prominence after their tenure including Sen. Richard Shelby and Gov. Don Siegelman.
Susan said her sorority's Machine representatives told the women how ultimately, if they followed the Machine, the greek system would benefit.
"She said 'this is the way it is and this is the way it has been for years. We do this for your own good,'" Susan said.
While no one interviewed said they could recall being told specific punishments for revealing secrets or going against Machine rules, each woman declined to be identified for this story.
Only seven independent candidates have won the SGA presidency. Emma said the organization and finances of Machine candidates give them the advantage.
"People are spending a lot of money on SGA elections so they can win, which disenfranchises normal students who want to run," she said. "They have an advantage and it all comes down to money."
However, Emma and others said the Machine thrives on the ambivalence of the general student population. Less than 20 percent of the student population is affiliated with the Machine, but the majority of student ballots are cast by greek students.
After receiving their list of candidates to vote for, greek members are shuttled to polling sites in groups to make sure the Machine candidate receives enough votes to win.
"We have to sign up for a time to vote, ride the bus over, and then get our names checked off," she said. "If we don't vote, then someone from the sorority will come find us and take us to vote. There is no getting around it."
The last candidate win over the Machine was John Merrill in 1986. Merrill said he earned the rare opportunity by forming a coalition of students from various aspects of campus, including athletes, international students and black students.
"We just put together a lot of different groups of students," he said. "It was something that I devoted a full year of my life to seeing to make it happen. It was something that happened because we worked to make it possible."
Merrill's campaign was reminiscent of Cleo Thomas who in 1976 became the University's first and only black SGA president.
Merrill said he received his share of threats after announcing his candidacy.
"We'd get threats all the time," he said. "They had people letting air out our tires because they knew where we lived."
In the past, the Machine was known to wire tap phones of opponents and break into offices to steal files.
While stories of the Machine and an SGA connection have not made headlines in this year's election, that is not an indication of inactivity.
Emma said inactivity by the general campus has made it easy for the system of greek domination to occur without complication. Not in a decade has Emma, who still resides in Tuscaloosa, seen a strong independent candidate that had the ability to galvanize the student body against the organized Machine.
"The next independent candidate that comes along and poses a real threat, they're going to try to shut them down whatever way they can."
In 1999, Fabien Zinga reported being threatened and having his campaign signs vandalized, reportedly by Machine supporters. A protest followed and a record number of students participated in the election. With four candidates running, the 36 percent electorate was divided and the reported Machine endorsed candidate won.
More severe reports of intimidation by the Machine led to the three-year suspension of the SGA in 1993. Minda Riley, a white sorority member not endorsed by the Machine, claimed she was threatened and attacked by Machine supporters.
Harry Knopke was vice president of student affairs in 1993 and recommended the elimination of the SGA. Knopke, now the president of Aquinas College in Michigan, said threats were not uncommon during election time.
"I got them all the time. The problematic issue is the threats the students got."
Some say the Machine's influence goes beyond the yearly role of selecting an SGA president.
'Rhonda,' a senior who was in a Machine sorority, said the Machine also determines Homecoming queen. She discarded a system where the winner would rotate yearly from house to house.
"Juniors and seniors vote for the girl you put up in the houses. Freshmen and sophomores have to vote for the Machine candidate," she said.
Rhonda also said the Machine plays a role in the selection for honoraries including Cardinal Key.
"All we think about is homecoming or SGA but its much more than that," she said.
With its return to the University, SGA participation remained primarily greek. In the first election 15 percent of independents voted compared to 81 percent of greeks.
Merrill said the Machine involvement in campus life will ensure its longevity as long as the majority of students do not feel compelled to vote.
"As far as its influence on campus, I would say its extremely strong," he said. "It will exist even if the SGA died again because there are other things involved."
However, as the years go by and as both attitudes and demographics change, Knopke said the coalition of all white sororities and fraternities cannot continue to operate on antiquated principles.
"It's going to have to (change) because of the changes in the world. It's inevitable," he said. "No one can afford to be isolated based on things they used to be."
In 1993 Siegelman told the CW of his time in the SGA and the Machine.
He said the Machine members should give up its secret nature and transform into a recognized student organization.
"As SGA president, I advocated the creation of a real political party that could raise student issues at open meetings, not in the basements of fraternity and sorority houses," he said.
As she reflected on her college years at the Capstone, Emma said her time with the Machine seemed trivial. She said when more independent students begin to show an interest in campus issues and gain the support of the majority, the mystique and power of the Machine would diminish.
"They know they don't have the majority on campus. It's an Apartheid system," she said. "It's a bunch of kids with too much power trying to get even more, and that's the contradiction of democracy."