The Machine, the former Alpha Rho chapter of Theta Nu Epsilon at the University of Alabama, is a coalition of Panhellenic sororities and IFC fraternities which formed a secret society with some degree of influence over campus and Alabama state politics. The group, which has operated in varying degrees of secrecy since 1914 (though its roots run deeper into the 19th century), is credited with selecting and ensuring the election of candidates for Student Government Association, Homecoming Queen, and other influential on-campus and off-campus offices, including the Student Government Association Senate. It was evidently first publicly noted as "a political machine" in 1928 by Alabama's campus newspaper, The Crimson White. Then in a 1945 article in the newspaper, it was referred to as "the machine", and the name has stuck ever since. It plays a role in the politics of the student community, and it is argued by others that it plays a real role in the political careers of numerous politicians in the state.
The Alpha Rho Chapter of Theta Nu Epsilon was founded at the University of Alabama in 1888.
The Alpha Rho Chapter was illegitimately founded; it was a chapter formed without formal permission of the society. In 1902, it contacted the governing authority of the society, the Alpha Chapter at Wesleyan University, and was accepted as a legitimate chapter. It was subsequently accepted by the administration and university community, and in 1905, the chapter hosted its first annual promenade, which was a successful public event. In 1909, on February 14, The Alpha Rho Chapter created a new society, this one for members of the senior class, called The Skulls. The Skulls replaced the Theta Nu Epsilon chapter. Both the earlier and later organizations were publicly recognized by the university, and appeared each year in the university yearbook.
The Skulls was considered a legitimate student group until 1922. The organization officially ceased to exist at that time.
Esquire devoted its April 1992 cover story to an exposé of The Machine.
Over the years, numerous campus political groups have been formed in an attempt to motivate independent students to vote for non-Machine candidates.
The University Party was formed by Ed Still and Jack Drake in 1967. Drake lost the SGA Presidency to Ralph Knowles and Still lost to Joe Espy.
An anti-machine group called "The Coalition" formed in 1968 and operated through 1972. This was a joint effort by the men's dormitories, small non-machine fraternities, International Students Association, women students, and the Afro-American Association. It was formed by Steve Windom (later Lt. Governor), Tommy Chapman (later District Attorney), Steve "Red" Wadlington (later political campaign operative), Don Gilbert (later head of Alabama Trial Lawyers Association) and Jim Zeigler (later Public Service Commissioner and a member of the Mallet Assembly). The Coalition succeeded in 1969 in electing Joe Estep as vice-president over the Machine's George Culver. It elected Henry Agee as secretary-treasurer over the Machine's Phil Reich. In 1970 it elected Zeigler as president of SGA as an independent. It also elected Windom to the Student Senate and almost 40% of the Student Senate in 1970-71. In 1972 the coalition senators led by Fred Benjamin got the SGA to recognize and fund the Afro American Association. Benjamin co-won Senator of the Year award along with a machine Senator. He lost election for vice president of the SGA later that year.
Another anti-Machine group was the Alabama Student Party (ASP), which was founded by SGA Senators Fred L. Gibson, Jr. and O. Kevin Vincent in 1985. ASP intended to run a full slate of independent candidates, but its efforts were temporarily thwarted when the Machine orchestrated a takeover of ASP by flooding its first general campus meeting at Ferguson Center with fraternity pledges and members and electing Neal Orr, a freshman member of a fraternity (Delta Tau Delta) that belonged to the Machine, as its president. Orr's fraternity was also the fraternity of the then SGA President, George Harris. Control of ASP was then subsequently retaken by independents later in the year, and it then played a pivotal role as a force for independents in upcoming elections. ASP successfully challenged the Machine with the election of John Merrill, an independent, as President in 1986, as well as a number of SGA Senators. Interestingly, Merrill was opposed by the Machine when he ran for SGA Senator, had been backed by the Machine for Vice President in 1985, and was then opposed by the Machine for President in 1986.
The Alabama Student Party subsequently was involved in the federal court case of Alabama Student Party v. Student Government Association of the University of Alabama, 867 F.2d 1344 (11th Cir. 1989).
The Mallet Assembly, originally a men's honors program founded by Dean of Men John Blackburn in the early 1960s, is traditionally opposed to Machine influence, and has campaigned for several candidates under the banner of the "Blue Door Party". Jim Zeigler, who defeated The Machine in 1970 for SGA President, was a member of the Mallet Assembly and actually lived in old Mallet Hall, where his room was burned in 1971.
One of the most controversial elections took place in 1976, when Cleo Thomas, an African-American student and member of an historically black fraternity, was elected to the SGA presidency with the support of the Mallet Assembly and a coalition of several sororities. In 1979, the Machine weathered an internal disagreement about who should be the Machine-endorsed candidates, which resulted three fraternities electing to leave the Machine to run their own candidates.
In 1989, independent Joey Viselli lost a very close election for president to a candidate who was reportedly the first ever Machine-backed female candidate for the office. Many people, including Tuscaloosa County election workers assisting with the election, believed there were definite irregularities. Viselli took a challenge of the results to the administration, which ruled against a new election, but did remove future student elections from student control. Later that spring, Viselli was elected President of the Residents Hall Council after a challenge by James Adams, a freshman member of a fraternity (Delta Tau Delta) that belonged to the Machine. Viselli's father Fran was a popular community figure who was the founder and owner of Bama-Bino's Pizza in the Tuscaloosa area. It has been widely believed that the Machine initiated a retaliatory boycott against Bama-Bino's following the election which, when combined with new competition, soon led to the closure of all Bama-Bino's.
In 1992, Phi Mu sorority member Minda Riley (daughter of former Alabama Governor Bob Riley) ran against Machine-backed candidate and Beta Theta Pi fraternity member Neil Duthie. In that election, Minda Riley made claims of harassment and physical assault, even though she belonged to a Machine-aligned sorority. Following the physical assault of Riley, resulting in her fleeing campus, the University nevertheless suspended the Student Government Association altogether, and did not reinstitute it until 1996. Minda Riley's brother Rob Riley was elected president of the SGA as a Machine candidate.
In 1999 African American Fabien Zinga-Kanza, a candidate for the SGA presidency, claimed that he was personally threatened and that his campaign signs were defaced. CNN covered the story, with references to the alleged history of intimidation attributed to the Machine.
Prior to the 2002 SGA election, the phrase "Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine" from Henry David Thoreau's essay "Civil Disobedience" was chalked on the outer wall of the Amelia Gayle Gorgas Library. This caused a group of students, calling themselves "The Counter-friction," to interrupt then university president Andrew Sorenson's epidemiology class while chanting words of protest against The Machine.
Internet voting debuted in 2003, but the results were ruled invalid after allegations of fraud and the election was repeated with paper ballots the following week. During the next election in 2004 SGA senate candidate Emeline Aviki, a member of Chi Omega who openly refused to be affiliated with the Machine, detailed the alleged harassment she received for the Crimson White, which used it for an exposé entitled "You don't want to mess with us." Though Aviki's campaign was successful, "the emotional and psychological toll the event caused" led her to transfer to Duke University where she went on to serve as Class President.
Controversy surrounding The Machine reemerged in August 2013, when sororities and fraternities were mobilized to elect two former SGA presidents, Cason Kirby and Lee Garrison, in closely contested municipal school board races. Before election day, questions about illegal voter registration were raised when evidence emerged that indicated eleven fraternity members fraudulently claimed to be living in a single house in a specific school district. And on election day, leaked emails suggested that sorority/fraternity members may have been provided incentives to vote—including free drinks at local bars. As a result of possible voter fraud, Kirby's and Garrison's opponents have refused to concede, and University of Alabama faculty have questioned whether The Machine has corrupted the democratic process in the City of Tuscaloosa.
In 2015, independent student Elliot Spillers was elected to the presidency, beating the Machine for the first time since Merrill. Spillers also became the first black SGA President since Thomas. His election was followed by intense political upheaval, including the Senate initially blocking the confirmation of his Chief of Staff, Chisolm Allenlundy, before the administration forced the confirmation. The incident was reported widely in media outlets, and calls again came pressuring the university administration to take action against the organization.