The End of the Machine’s Block Voting Gambit?

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Many students had been too busy hitting the books to care about such things as who sat on the local school board in 2013.

Repercussions of the Tuscaloosa 2013 municipal election have had consequences.

The impact of the student vote in Tuscaloosa had never been consequential until 1997 when an undergraduate student had devised a surefire formula for electoral success.

The 2013 Franklin Stove Blog‘s post “Judgement Day & The Machine” described the gambit of mobilizing student votes:

In 1997 an undergraduate student who was President of the University’s Inter-fraternity Council Lee Garrison was able to secure a seat on the Tuscaloosa  City Council with the help of The Machine Vote at the University. Coming from a well known Tuscaloosa family Garrison garnered support from families living in its Historic District neighborhoods, as well as the support by University students in the Greek system.

In his first year on the Council Garrison attempted to use The Machine’s vote to prevent the School Board from becoming an elected body by adding a “straw poll” on alcohol use to the referendum on electing the board. His last minute effort to register students was the subject of a 1998 story in the Tuscaloosa News in which the AEA representaive Walt Maddox, who successfully ran for a seat on the Council in 2001 and for Tuscaloosa’s Mayor in 2009, was quoted.

“It’s no coincidence, Maddox said, “that the nonbinding referendum votes include alcohol sales. That would be the single most motivating factor to bring college students to the polls. It is also no coincidence that Mr. Garrison. who serves on the City Council, is registering voters to vote not only on the alcohol issue but also on the elected board referendum.  I would imagine that Mr. Garrison is instructing the students to vote against an elected school board.”

In 2013 Garrison had purportedly used the Machine vote to become Chair of the School Board. District Four candidate Cason Kirby, who also was thought to be a Machine candidate, unseated incumbent Kelly Horwitz in the same School Board race.

During a Pre-Council meeting at Tuscaloosa‘s City Hall Garrison, after having arrived late, had approached the City Clerk. He had demanded that signs directing students to the proper polling place be put up. He had said that many students had been showing up at the wrong polling place. The Clerk had then explained that he should take up the issue about signage with the Board of Registars.

Neither Garrison or Kirby ran for re-election. According an article in the Tuscaloosa News by Drew Taylor, Garrison had found the position “more challenging” than he had thought it would be.

On January 19, 2022, the Crimson White‘s Carson Silas had written a story about the Tuscaloosa City Council‘s vote to postpone the municipal election until May. He had provided background on the Council’s resolution:

The resolution was proposed to address questions about election security that have persisted since a contested 2013 Tuscaloosa City Board of Education election, which saw University alum Cason Kirby gain the District 4 seat over incumbent Kelly Horwitz.

In a lawsuit challenging the election results, Horwitz alleged that “offers to bribe, bribery, intimidation or other misconduct” contributed to Kirby’s win. Reports of illegal voting activities during the 2013 election included 10 individuals registered to vote at a single address, and sorority and fraternity members being offered free alcohol to vote for Kirby.

After Horwitz’s case was dismissed in the Tuscaloosa County Circuit Court, the Alabama Supreme Court granted Horwitz’s appeal in a 7-2 ruling, stating that 159 ballots should have been rejected in the 2013 election on the basis of unfulfilled residency requirements.

The date of municipal elections was changed to the first Tuesday of March following approval by the Alabama Legislature in 2015 in an attempt to curb future election security issues.

The Tuscaloosa NewsJason Morton had explained the rationale for the proposed election date change. He wrote: “Mobilization efforts in past elections have helped sway the outcomes based on the votes of temporary or transient residents, many of whom don’t live here long enough to face the consequences of their electoral actions.”

A 2013 post in the Franklin Stove Blog (FSB) had given details about the Political Action Committee (PAC) that had provided most of the funding for the candidates who were attempting to unseat School Board incumbents:

If you drive through the neighborhoods in Tuscaloosa’s District 4 where University of Alabama students live you’ll see signs that support candidates who are running for the Tuscaloosa School Board. There are probably some students who have an abiding interest in educating Tuscaloosa’s children. But many of the signs are in dwellings inhabited by Fraternity or Sorority members. They are likely the same people who support the Machine candidates in the Student Government Association races. District 4 has recently been redrawn in a way that gives University students more clout. The 38 percent of students at the University who are Greeks vote as a bloc.

The Educate Tuscaloosa Political Action Committee ( ET PAC ) has provided most of the campaign money to three candidates who are running for the School Board.

The FSB’s post “Judgement Day & The Machine” had elaborated on funding by the ET PAC:

Political operative and long-time Garrison ally and Pi Kappa Phi Fraternity alumnus Mike Echols, Chair of Friends of Lee Garrison in 2013, formed the Educate Tuscaloosa Political Action Committee ( ET PAC ) as a part of a strategy to take over Tuscaloosa’s School Board. All five challengers to the School Board incumbents were given the lion’s share of the over $70,000 raised by the ET PAC. Three candidates for the School Board were given over 85% of their funding by the PAC. Despite the largesse poured into the coffers of the challenging candidates by the ET PAC and large amounts of  money from other sources only Cason Kirby in District 4 was successful in unseating an incumbent.

Cason Kirby, who received over $14,000 from the ET PAC alone, was victorious in his race against School Board incumbent Kelly Horwitz, but not because of the size of his campaign chest. His win can be attributed solely to the support of The Machine. The District 4 polling place was swamped by students, many of whom were wearing tee-shirts commemorating the Greek Fest, the Old Row or displaying other Greek themes. They came from Tennessee, Oregon, Georgia, California and other states to vote for candidates who were running in a  local school board race in Alabama. The students were required to return to their Houses wearing the “I voted” stickers that they were given after voting. One person sympathetic to Horwitz said that she wished she could have stood outside the polling place with a roll of stickers and handed them out to students to save them the trouble of casting ballots.

T-Town has had a unique problem with student voting. It had not been so much a problem with students having voted in municipal elections. (Although it had seemed strange that so many university students were interested in who sat on the local school board.)

The crux of the problem had been the power of The Machine at the University of Alabama. Over thirty percent of the university’s students were affiliated with Greek organizations but certainly the number who were pawns of The Machine had been far less.

Still, by generating hundreds of votes in an election where the turnout was only in the hundreds, The Machine had been able to exert a significant impact on politics in T-Town. Members of Greek organizations affiliated with The Machine had doubtlessly been sanctioned for not voting. It was not the same thing as an unregimented block vote by an interest group.

According to a poll worker, during the 2013 municipal election, a student had left the District Four polling place before voting. She was so frustrated that she had been in tears. She returned after being escorted back by two other students and voted.

The Crimson White‘s Isabel Hope in November 18, 2021, had written about how The Machine had “fixed” campus elections. She had described the student apathy that had allowed Machine backed candidates to prevail. Why would students who had no interest in campus politics have flocked to the polls to vote in a local municipal election?

Whether changing the voting date for local elections would have been considered a form of “voter suppression” had been a contentious topic in T-Town. One thing had been clear: politics had always created strange bedfellows. Mark Twain had been falsely credited with having said –“If voting made any difference, they wouldn’t let us do it.” Still in T-Town many people seemed to have had agreed with that sentiment.


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