How does the Machine survive at UA?

Isabel Hope, Assistant News Editor

Bennett McGehee wanted to get involved in student government. 

He had heard rumors of the Machine, a 100-year-old underground political organization of sorority and fraternity members that controls campus elections. When he walked up to a Student Government Association table to ask about it, he was told the Machine didn’t exist. 

McGehee, who graduated from the University in 2020, was an independent Senator who served on the SGA Financial Affairs Committee. He also worked on multiple campaign teams for independent candidates who were not Machine affiliated.

“I guess my assessment of the Machine’s influence on SGA elections is that they don’t have an influence,” McGehee said. “They run the elections.”

Machine actions over the years have included burning crosses, burglary, vandalism and boycotts of local businesses. 

The Machine was investigated by the FBI in 1983 after non-Machine SGA President John Bolus discovered that his phone was being tapped.

The SGA was temporarily shut down after a non-Machine presidential candidate reported being assaulted in 1993.

In 2013, a school board member filed a lawsuit claiming the Machine illegally influenced a city election by incentivizing students with alcohol and concert tickets.

In the ’90s, the Machine allegedly stole over 4,000 copies of The Crimson White after learning that an expose on the organization was going to be printed the day before an SGA election.

The Members

Alex Smith, who graduated from the University in 2018, was an SGA Senator and member of the Machine. 

Smith said she was directed to the Machine after rushing Phi Mu, a Machine-affiliated sorority and expressing interest in student government.

“I knew it was kind of my key or my ticket to obtaining an SGA position if I wanted one,” she said. “I was assured that it was nothing bad. I was told that it was a group of people comprised of members of the Greek system that essentially looked out for other members of the Greek system, kind of like a voting bloc.”

Smith said the Machine became a larger part of her life once she won a seat in the Senate. She was told by Machine representatives within her sorority that she was part of a “select, secret group of senators” and not to tell anyone about the meeting.

“Once I got the OK from my Machine reps in my house to run and I obtained a Senate position, I became much more familiar with the Machine, considering that I became one of their senators,” she said. “Over the span of a couple of months I became more familiar with the inner workings and what exactly being a part of the Machine entailed. To me, it was much more than just a voting blocc. It was a way that members of the Greek system coerced those in power to vote a specific way.”

McGehee echoed this sentiment.

“I did overhear a Machine-affiliated graduate senator, when we were going into a Senate meeting, say, ‘I’ve been instructed on what to vote on tonight,’” he said. “It was a joke, but that’s literally what they do. They’ll send the text message and be like ‘Hey, this is how we’re voting tonight.’”

A freshman sorority member, who chose to remain anonymous, said she became immediately aware of the Machine while rushing this year.

“They sat us [sorority members] down the week before we got initiated, and they were like, ‘This is how we are involved in the Machine,’ or ‘the group,’ as they called it,” she said. “The girl who is directly involved with the Machine told us who she was and to the capacity she’s involved in it. This was right when homecoming elections were coming up.”

She said the Machine representative encouraged them to vote for presumably Machine-backed candidate McLean Moore. She decided not to participate in the “24/7” homecoming campaign for Moore.

“I just chose not to be a part of that,” she said. “Not to put myself in that position publicly. I didn’t post any of her graphics for things. I didn’t associate myself with the Machine-backed candidate.”

McGehee said every sorority involved with the Machine has a representative who reaches out to members to tell them who the Machine-backed candidate is in every election. 

He drafted an amendment while he was in office to make election results public on the website in perpetuity. He had approval from the then-SGA president and other Machine-affiliated people. The amendment passed the Senate, but once Machine members realized it would make results public that “included reference to the Machine,” it lost their support.

“They had reps going through houses saying that reporting the voting results publicly was supporting cyberbullying,” he said.

McGehee said there is a “weird air” in the SGA offices when it comes to the Machine.

“You’re not allowed to talk about it,” he said. 

The Politics

John Archibald, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for AL.com, graduated from the University in the ’80s. He co-hosted “Greek Gods,” a podcast about the Machine, in 2018 with AL.com’s Reckon Radio.

Archibald said a primary reason he cares about the Machine is because “it doesn’t stop in college, and it manifests itself in the real world.” He also noted a more personal connection.

“The Machine is the reason I do what I do today, because in addition to being a great training ground for a corrupt politician, that’s a great training ground for journalists who are indignant about corrupt politicians,” he said. “It’s also the reason I’m married to my wife.”

He met his wife, Alecia Archibald, while working at the CW and covering Machine activity on campus. He recalled “staking out” the Sigma Chi house and watching Machine representatives put bags over their heads to get to cars that quickly pulled up for them. She said Phi Mu’s faculty advisor told her to break up with Archibald and quit the CW or she would be kicked out of Phi Mu.

Smith said what sticks out to her most from her time in the Machine is that she was told she could vote however she wanted as a senator, but when she didn’t vote how the Machine wanted, there was “punishment.”

“I think one of the most telling things is that if it really wasn’t a big deal, if this group really isn’t as bad as people make them out to be, then why are they punishing people when they don’t fall in line?” she said.

Smith said that once she left the Machine, her sorority members reacted negatively, and she felt “exiled.” 

“It became very apparent that no one wanted to sit with me,” she said. “No one really wanted to be my friend. Things were said in our pledge class group about me leaving the Machine and how it would reflect poorly on our house. I received dozens of blocked phone calls from numbers I didn’t know cursing at me and saying very ugly things. Fellow Machine senators no longer wanted to work with me on any issues or any type of legislation.”

McGehee later worked on the presidential campaign team for Gene Fulmer. Fulmer’s opponent Jared Hunter, had enough election violations to be disqualified, but his campaign was only suspended with community service hours. McGehee said the candidate campaigned for only a few hours but won with over 60% of the vote.

Hunter won the presidential election and publicly claimed a connection to the Machine. 

McGehee later got a call from a Machine representative acknowledging that the Machine-backed candidate should have been disqualified. The Elections Board resigned after the campaign cycle over the incident. 

While campaigning for an independent candidate in his junior year, he was followed by people he had never seen or met before, including staffers from other campaigns. McGehee left the SGA in his senior year.

“The reason I dropped out of SGA senior year was because I wanted a cabinet position,” he said. “The incoming Machine administration knew that and promised me a paid cabinet position before campaign season in exchange for campaigning for the Machine-backed candidate for SGA President. I didn’t take their offer and campaigned for independent candidates. I met with the president-elect and asked if it was worth my time to apply for a cabinet spot after elections. He said yes, but I was ultimately not offered any role in SGA.”

When Smith ran for homecoming queen, she wanted to campaign at a sorority house but was denied the ability to speak. She said the Machine “infiltrates” honor societies and campus organizations, so it was hard to build relationships for the rest of her time in college. 

No one takes the SGA as seriously as the Machine, according to Smith.

“When you have a third of campus automatically coming in as freshmen, essentially being forced to be politically involved in SGA, then that automatically gives the Machine an advantage,” she said. “Whereas other students who are coming in who are not members of the Greek system are not being exposed to SGA and the politics of what the Machine is.”

The anonymous freshman sorority member said she is embarrassed for those still in the Machine.

“There’s obviously a very large voting bloc of Greeks who will vote how the Machine tells them. It’s been harmful. I mean it goes back into the 1800s as being a racist organization, and honestly, if you’re involved in the Machine, I think it’s embarrassing. That’s why I decided to distance myself from that. I decided to speak up.”

Archibald said he thought the Greek Gods podcast would be an interesting story to tell about the culture of Alabama politics.

“I wanted to do it because of the sheer number of politicians who come out of that system,” he said. “It’s really a breeding ground for politicians. It’s a classic story of privilege versus justice.”

The Voters

Historically, voter turnout in campus elections has not been high. The recent homecoming election saw the largest voter turnout since 2015, with over 13,000 students – one-third of the student body – voting. McGehee said student voter apathy leads to the Machine-backed candidates consistently winning, but doesn’t think it’s the only reason.

“There’s definitely some student apathy, but I think that that’s an excuse,” he said. “I mean, just because there’s apathy, … it doesn’t give you the right to rig elections.”

The freshman sorority member said she sees student apathy but wants the student body to know what’s going on behind closed doors.

“People should know that it’s real,” she said. “It’s a real organization. It’s dangerous. People shouldn’t feel apathetic toward it. They have real power on this campus and statewide.”

Now that Smith has had several years to reflect on her experiences, she has a message for students currently involved with the Machine.

“There is not a day that goes by that I ever regret standing up for what I believe in or the injustices that I saw,” she said. “Just knowing that you have the ability to stand up for what is right, for what you believe in. I just hope that people who are in college now can understand that that will be so worth it in the long run, even if it seems like it would do harm to you in the now.”

While the University’s administration has never officially acknowledged the Machine’s existence, the freshman sorority member said she does not believe that the administration is unaware.

“Obviously the administration has to know about it,” she said. “It’s Alabama’s dirty little secret.” 

This story was published in the Rumor Edition. View the complete issue here.

Questions? Email the News desk at newsdesk@cw.ua.edu.