The college students began arriving a little before lunch at Calvary Baptist Church, far more than usual for a local election. The poll workers knew immediately: the Machine was here. The school year at the University of Alabama has barely gotten started, and already the campus has found itself in a charged self-examination on issues of politics, power and race, with the exposure of tenacious segregation among fraternities and sororities drawing national attention. But the turmoil began some weeks earlier. It raised the specter of the Machine, a secret society representing a league of select and almost exclusively white fraternities and sororities, which has been around for a century or more. Once a breeding ground for state political leaders, the Machine (it has long been known by that nickname) today maintains a solid hold on student government through an effective, and critics say coercive, brand of old-fashioned organization politics. But the Machine’s apparent involvement in an August school board election, a rare appearance in municipal politics, has prompted a lawsuit, accusations of voter fraud and an outcry that in many ways primed the campus for the larger storm over inclusion and tradition that is now taking place.
The race for the Tuscaloosa City Board of Education was already atypical. Business interests had announced a desire to remake the board, saying the rate of progress had been insufficient in a system of 10,000 students, most of them low-income. Fueled by business-financed political action committees, the challengers outraised the incumbents 10 to 1, reporting by far the most money raised in a Tuscaloosa school board race. Most of the challengers nonetheless lost.
In District 4, however, the challenger was Cason Kirby, a 26-year-old former student government president one year out of law school. “I really decided it was someplace I could make a difference,” Mr. Kirby said in an interview. He acknowledged that he had never been to a school board meeting before his campaign, but said he had growing concerns about the state of the city’s schools and was encouraged by civic and business leaders to run.
He also had a natural base of support. “The limos and party bus are running constantly,” read one of numerous similar e-mails circulated around Machine-affiliated sororities on Election Day. Free drinks were promised at local bars for those wearing “I Voted” stickers. Sorority leaders were careful to emphasize that they were not endorsing a particular candidate but encouraged members to wear Cason Kirby T-shirts to the polls.
The numbers bear out their influence. Of the 369 voters registered in the district this year, 269 registered during one week in mid-August, and 94 percent of those newly registered voters were 21 or younger. Mr. Kirby won the race by 416 to 329 votes.