A look at The Machine's influence

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A look at The Machine's influence

Kylie Cowden

Kylie Cowden

Kylie Cowden

Will Jones, Bennett Stansell

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SGA elections at The University of Alabama are rarely boring. In the most recent contest, candidates drew significant interest for scandals, campaign violations and owning up to membership in an infamous campus secret society. For the first time in the University’s history, a candidate for SGA president publicly said he was backed by Theta Nu Epsilon, a group of campus sororities and fraternities commonly referred to as The Machine.

Jared Hunter’s article in The Crimson White brought about a new level of public exposure to The Machine, and with the spotlight came the reemergence of questions about its actions and operations. But although The Machine is in full swing today, the group has existed at the University for the better part of a century. 

The term “machine” made its debut in a 1928 letter to The Crimson White from William J. Cabaniss. Since that time, the group relentlessly supported candidates for SGA offices and dominated student campus politics, and only a few students without Machine backing have been elected SGA president.

According to a source with direct ties to the previous administration and The Machine, the group has a complex interior structure that determines most major decisions. The Executive Board of The Machine is elected every fall by members of The Machine commonly referred to as “reps.” The number of “reps” varies from house to house, but all reps are members of Machine sororities and fraternities who are selected as replacements by the previous Machine reps.

Like many other campus groups, The Machine’s board consists of a president, vice president, secretary and treasurer. Other roles within The Machine include a historian, a student in charge of fraternity relations, a student in charge of sorority relations and a “propagandist” who acts as a communications officer for The Machine, the source said.

The Machine needs funding in order to persist, and it receives it from its constituent members. When a fraternity or sorority is chosen to become a part of the Machine, they are required to pay a “buy in” that is usually $10,000 or more. In addition to the buy in, sororities and fraternities within The Machine are required to pay dues every semester that vary based on the house, the individual said. Alumni who are former members of the organization also pay into the system.

The acquired money is used to help candidates get elected and maintain influence once in office. One way The Machine does this is by giving its candidates the full amount that they are allowed to spend for SGA campaigns, the source said. Additionally, The Machine uses the money to purchase alcohol and fund private parties that act as part of a rewards system for loyalty.

Once a candidate is elected, the leeway they are given to make choices independent of Machine corroboration varies depending on position. The president is traditionally given more operating room than other SGA members, but that quickly changes if the president does anything that negatively affects The Machine, the Greek system or the University.

Typically, Senators are “lobbied” by their Machine rep to enact the policies that are deemed favorable by The Machine. The SGA Judicial Board, however, has little to no Machine influence, according to the source, but that doesn’t prevent The Machine from flooding the application process with its members. The source also said The Machine holds no sway over the Elections Board.

For any Machine-backed SGA member, penalties are levied if the individual does not abide by the wishes of The Machine, the source said.

“Anybody on [the SGA Executive Council] who was looking at doing something [The Machine] didn’t like, or running against them for a position in the future…their threat is going to be like, ‘If you do this, besides individual consequences, we are going to take this out on your entire house too,’ and that is often a very powerful thing,” the individual said.

The consequences for not following The Machine’s wishes typically includes threats of an individual’s fraternity or sorority not having swaps, and also turning the individual into a social outcast.

Additionally, the source said while many University administrators do not necessarily hold favorable opinions of The Machine, a “stranglehold” still exists on administrators preventing them from acting against The Machine.

“The easiest way to explain it is that administrators are scared to do anything because they think they’re going to lose their jobs for it,” the individual said.

When it comes to whipping votes, The Machine’s influence is exerted at a more peer-to-peer level. Each year, on the day of the SGA election, a common object can be found hanging from the walls of several University of Alabama sorority houses: a sign of some sort, indicating which SGA candidates that sorority is supporting. 

“It’s basically just this poster board and it has each college and which candidate you should vote for and The Machine switches it up because they have different candidates,” said Helmi Henkin, a junior psychology and French major who is a member of a machine sorority.

These signs, which Henkin described as “common protocol for election day,” are indicative of how The Machine exerts its influence in sorority houses on campus. According to Henkin, The Machine does not force sorority girls, who comprise a significant percentage of their voting bloc, to vote a certain way with threats of violence. Instead, they rely on subtler methods, such as messages sent in GroupMe the night before the election. 

The Machine focuses on increasing voter turnout in sorority houses, rather than who the girls actually vote for; they simply assume that the girls will vote the way of their sorority, which is typically the way of The Machine. Henkin said that on election day, girls will get calls or texts from other girls in the sorority, asking them if they have voted or not. Henkin said her sorority has requested for girls to send in their voting confirmation email in the past, but the email did not list who the girls voted for.

Henkin’s sorority is a relatively new player to Machine politics, having just joined a few years ago with a reported $10,000 initial deposit. A select group of girls in her sorority decided that the sorority would join The Machine because they believed it would give their social status a boost.

“That’s why they said they joined The Machine, to raise our social stature,” Henkin said.

An elevated social status, which can include being invited to more joint social events with fraternities, not only draws sororities to membership, but the promise of it ensures that they will continue to vote the way The Machine wants. It was revealed that this happened in 2015, when screenshots obtained by the Huffington Post showed girls in the Alpha Gamma Delta telling fellow sisters not to publicly support a homecoming candidate in order for them to retain the support of The Machine.

Henkin’s Greek life experience has been marred by negative experiences she had with girls who support The Machine in her own sorority. She is currently involved with the Capstone Coalition, a source registered organization that supports “transparency, inclusion and diversity at The University of Alabama.” Henkin said her involvement with Capstone Coalition, along with her public support of non-Machine candidates in the past, caused girls in her sorority to act out against her. The threatening actions taken by the girls became so unsettling to Henkin that she moved out of the house. 

Although her interactions with The Machine has been disheartening, Henkin believes that the organization is currently changing for the better. 

“The Machine is morphing. This is good, since diversity is important for the student body,” Henkin said. “The whole diversity week thing, they didn’t care about diversity two years ago. I’m glad they do, because these are important issues.”

SGA President-elect Jared Hunter became a symbol for The Machine’s effort at evolution after he publicly announced himself as the first black candidate to be backed by the historically white group. To this day, Hunter contends that his interactions with The Machine have been limited to conversations that have occurred with his fraternity’s Machine representative. 

“When word started going around that I was going to run, he asked for a copy of my resume and then just a list of some of my ideas,” Hunter said. “Whenever they had their meeting to decide who they were going to support; I guess he showed people.”

Hunter expects The Machine to continue to change in the near future. 

“I wouldn’t be surprised if, in five to ten years, The Machine that we see today is completely different,” he said. “I’m not sure what it will look like. I think progress takes time and this year was the first step in making changes.”

However, many on campus do not believe that The Machine has changed and its attempts at transparency fall short. Recently elected SGA Senator Mike Smith, a sophomore majoring in economics, firmly believes that The Machine is not getting any more progressive.

“They don’t care about diversity, equality or inclusion, no matter how many meaningless SGA events they throw,” Smith said. “The Machine messed up with Stevie Keller a few years back, so they nominated a woman and a black man back-to-back to regain control… after two years of getting over 50 percent, I promise you the basement will throw up a white conservative Old Row fraternity guy for president next year.”