"How do you beat the Machine?"
The Crimson White
March 07, 2005
Past non-Machine presidents explain how they won
In the 90-year history of the University's SGA, only seven people have beaten the Machine candidate for SGA president.
Six of those winners belonged to non-Machine greek organizations, including Cleo Thomas, the SGA's only black president, who was a member of Kappa Alpha Psi. John Merrill remains the lone independent candidate to win the SGA presidency.
The Machine is a "select coalition of traditionally white fraternities and sororities designed to influence campus politics."
Merrill, SGA president in 1986-87, said he coined this description when he ran his anti-Machine campaign and had to explain the organization to numerous reporters and UA students.
"I needed a sound bite you could use every time to indoctrinate people on what [the Machine] is," he said. "It's important, because if you don't say it that way, people don't know what you are talking about."
Just as the Machine is today, Merrill said its members did not discuss the organization publicly when he was at the University.
"But you still knew where the lines were," he said. "Like today, you know [the Machine candidate is] that little girl [Mary Margaret Carroll]. She can say 'I'm not' or whatnot, but she is and that's just the way it is."
Early on in her campaign, Carroll, a member of Machine sorority Chi Omega, told The CW she could not control who decided to vote for her.
Zac Riddle, a member of non-Machine fraternity Alpha Tau Omega, flatly denied being the organization's candidate.
Merrill's main tactic during his campaign was to come out strongly against the Machine and to open students' eyes about how it works, he said.
"The message we were trying to send was that if you are a typical student on this campus and you want to get involved in student organizations and make a difference, if you aren't in a fraternity or sorority, you can't do that because they're going to restrict your involvement.
"So if you're one of them, you can make it. And if you're not, you can't. And even if you are one of them and you're not in the right house the right year, you still can't."
Merrill said he believed that message resonated with students and helped him win.
"To beat the Machine, the Machine has got to be the issue," he said.
Riddle said he did not agree with Merrill on that point.
"I think students are almost to the point now of, 'Ah, this guy's just talking about the Machine. Come on now, get some real ideas,'" Riddle said. "So I think it's a tough task.
"It's not easy, but I think the way to do it is to make as many personal contacts as you can and create a network like that.
"But then, those guys have done it and I haven't," Riddle added, laughing.
Merrill and Thomas both said the key is to make sure students see that the SGA impacts them.
"You can talk about plus/minus grading, more lighting, more safety, more student seating -- all of those things are good, but how many are going to get Joe Blow, who drives in from Gordo every day, to stand in line for 45 minutes to vote?" Merrill asked.
"It's more difficult [to get elected when not the Machine candidate] because of the apathy of the majority of students," Thomas said. "The more active voters, the more people for whom SGA matters, seems not to be the majority of the campus but a core group of folks, and that's why they call it a Machine."
If students don't see the SGA working for them, they will not vote, he said.
Thomas also said the SGA is seen by many students as a vehicle of personal ambition, which increases voter apathy. He said he did not know how a non-Machine candidate could mobilize large groups of students to vote.
"If I had that secret I would certainly share that with them," he said.
Making the Machine the issue and speaking out boldly about the organization created problems of its own for Merrill during his campaign.
Late one night around a week before the vote, Merrill and two friends walked in on two students who had broken into his office. One got away, but the other did not.
"We wouldn't let him leave," Merrill said. "The CW was located at the other end of the building [the Ferguson Center], so I sent one guy there to get someone from the office. They took a picture of him and interviewed him and put it on the front page."
Merrill and his wife (he is also the only SGA president to be elected while married) also received many threatening phone calls. The University Police Department put a tap on his phone and was able to track down some of the people making threats.
Someone let the air out of his tires, and people would also follow him around campus and curse at him, Merrill said.
"I'm just talking about groups of folks," he said. "You can't assign that; it could be anyone. I felt like it was people belonging to Machine fraternities."
Tampering with the election does not stop during the campaign period, Merrill said. The Machine would organize people to wait in line at the polls, park their cars in voting area lots so no one else could park and employ other tactics to deter people from voting, he said.
"That's absolutely true," he said. "But that's old-school. They've been doing this stuff for years."
Though the Machine has long had a reputation of using intimidation as a political maneuver, Thomas, who served as the University's first and only black SGA president from 1976-77, said he does not have any recollection of harassment during his campaign. The only questionable activity occurred after he won the presidency.
"After the election a cross was burned," he said. "That's the only thing I can recall."
To win the election, Thomas enlisted the help of UA sorority women, he said. A member of Kappa Delta sorority was his campaign manager.
Thomas' campaign was organized to target the entire campus but had no great hopes for many votes from Machine fraternities, he said. He had a campaign coordinator in all of the sorority houses because sororities were not yet in the Machine at that time, he said.
"The fact that there was no unbreakable solidarity between the Machine and sororities was evidenced by the fact that a member of Chi Omega sorority was also running," Thomas said. "The times are revealed to you by that fact."
By the runoff between Thomas and the Machine candidate, Thomas said many sorority women who had voted for the Chi O candidate had no problem switching their votes over to him.
"Because of committees that I chaired in the SGA, I had met a lot of sorority women and gotten to know a lot of people," he said. "As in all politics, it's about knowing people and making contacts all the way."
Thomas said he also had a campaign coordinator for all residence halls and one for each floor of each hall. The main off-campus apartment complexes were also targeted, he said.
By the time Merrill ran for SGA president, sororities were in the Machine, he said, so he could not use that tactic.
"When I was running, I knew the only way I could win was to put together a coalition of students, so I made a list," Merrill said.
His list consisted of how many students he could likely count on from each campus constituency, like athletes, international students, black students and students living in residence halls, he said.
"I even put down 100 Machine greeks, and I think I had it figured pretty close to being right, because I won by 110 votes in the runoff," he said.
Merrill said he specifically targeted athletes and had several helping with his campaign, such as Mike Shula, Van Tiffin and Mark Gottfried.
Like Merrill, Riddle said he is also looking for the athlete vote. Students living in residence halls are another group Riddle is campaigning hard for.
Carroll said her campaign is focused on the entire University more so than on any particular groups.
Because the Machine is a relatively secretive organization, there have always been students who believe it does not exist on the University's campus, Merrill said.
He said he thinks many of the walls have been broken down over the years but said there is still an inordinate amount of Machine influence on the SGA and other campus organizations.
"People will think what they want to think," he said. "Some people don't think Neil Armstrong walked on the moon."