It was the fall of 1984. President Reagan was cruising to reelection over a hapless Walter Mondale, the Cold War was winding down, and in rural Oregon, a small religious sect led by an Indian mystic was busy organizing a massive voter-fraud campaign that nearly enabled it to take over an entire county.
A few years earlier, a guru named Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and his hundreds of followers had relocated from India to a 64,000-acre ranch in Wasco County, a rural area of approximately 21,000 people an hour east of Portland. As might to be expected, there were problems with the locals.
Rajneesh’s immediate concern was building more houses to accommodate his growing number of followers, known as Rajneeshees. But doing so would require construction permits that county officials—who were less than thrilled about the sect unexpectedly showing up in their backyard and who worried about its growing power—were reluctant to grant.
Their reluctance was vindicated in 1982 when enough Rajneeshees voted in nearby Antelope’s (population: 50) local elections to win a majority of its city-council seats. Soon thereafter, the new council members renamed the town “Rajneesh,” raised property taxes to extract money from the few remaining local residents, and passed other bizarre initiatives, including renaming the local recycling center the Adolf Hitler Recycling Center.
Tensions remained high between the Rajneeshees and the Wasco County Commission throughout 1983 and 1984, with the two sides repeatedly at loggerheads over the sect’s expansion efforts. Finally, in the summer of 1984, the Rajneeshees decided that the only way to obtain the building permits they needed was to take over Wasco County in November’s election.
But the group’s followers accounted for less than 10 percent of the county’s population. Unseating at least two of the three sitting commissioners and replacing them with Rajneeshees would require more drastic measures. They hatched a two-pronged plan. First, the Rajneeshees would try to depress turnout among regular voters by poisoning thousands of residents with Salmonella, thus incapacitating them on Election Day. Second, the group would round up thousands of homeless people from nearby cities, entice them with promises of food and shelter, and register them to vote.
They started small. When two of the three county commissioners visited the compound one hot August day, a resident dressed in hospital garb offered the men glasses of water. Both happily accepted. The next morning, they became violently ill; one went to the hospital for four days and would have died without treatment. The Salmonella attack had begun. Though the Rajneeshees denied any involvement in this poisoning, subsequent investigations showed they hoped it would strike enough fear in the county commissioners to ensure smooth sailing going forward. However, when building permits continued to be denied, the Rajneeshees launched a larger operation.
One morning in September, teams of two left the compound, traveled to nearby restaurants in The Dalles, and, when nobody was looking, poured Salmonella-tainted liquid on items in the salad bar. The Rajneeshees hit a total of 10 restaurants, as well as a handful of other public areas. Within hours, emergency rooms were flooded with sick patients. A total of 751 people were stricken with Salmonella poisoning in what is still the largest bioterrorism attack in American history. Miraculously, no one died.
The Rajneeshees had also considered a much worse plan of attack: poisoning the local water supply and crashing a plane loaded with bombs into the county courthouse. They ultimately decided against both ideas.
Meanwhile, the Rajneeshees began implementing part two of their scheme: exploiting homeless people to pack the voter rolls. Under the auspices of a humanitarian “Share-a-Home” program, the Rajneeshees chartered dozens of buses and promised homeless people food, clothing, and shelter if they came to the compound. Their efforts were wildly successful, bringing in more than 2,300 people, all of whom were forced to register to vote when they get off the bus. They could stay with one condition: They had to vote for the Rajneeshees’ commissioner candidates.
It didn’t take long for the sect to realize that bringing in thousands of outsiders, many of whom had severe mental disabilities, would be problematic. As Les Zaitz of The Oregonian wrote in a comprehensive series, “a remote ranch founded on love and freedom was no place for an unruly mob.” Documents show that some of the new arrivals were awakened at 5:30 every morning, regularly blindfolded, and forced to listen to hours of religious chanting. The Rajneeshees even spiked beer kegs with tranquilizer in order to subdue their guests.
State officials, who kept a close eye on the compound’s activities, soon caught wind of the voter-fraud scheme. Because of the irregularities, Secretary of State Norma Paulus halted voter registration in Wasco County and invoked an emergency rule on October 10 that required anyone registering to vote in the county to personally appear at a local eligibility hearing. Among the issues to be considered was whether applicants had satisfied Oregon’s 20-day residency requirement to vote. The Rajneeshees filed for an injunction, but a federal judge quickly ruled in the state’s favor.
Left with few options, the sect abandoned its attempt to take over the county government, withdrew its candidates, and announced two days before the vote that it would boycott the election. One of Rajneesh’s deputies laughed off the matter, saying it was all an elaborate ruse and the county just didn’t understand their sense of humor.
Hundreds of sick residents and thousands of displaced homeless people later, the Rajneeshees’ attempt to perpetrate massive voter fraud had failed. Rajneesh himself paid $400,000 in fines and was deported back to India, where he returned to his ashram. Three of his three deputies were sent to prison, including Ma Anand Sheela, who masterminded the attack and served 29 months in prison before being deported.
What does this bizarre, made-for-Hollywood episode tell us about voter fraud?
First, it’s really hard to pull off. Even for a group with thousands of loyal followers, millions of dollars, and a willingness to use germ warfare, it couldn’t achieve its relatively small goal of winning two county commissioner seats.
Second, voter fraud is exceedingly rare precisely because it is extraordinarily difficult to pull off. If it were as easy as many conservatives claim, it would be ubiquitous, but that’s just not the case. To believe otherwise, paraphrasing Amanda Marcotte, is to depend on the belief that massive conspiracies are an everyday occurrence.
Third, the media discusses voter fraud in a problematically broad way. Sometimes “voter fraud” includes religious sects who poison hundreds of people and tries to exploit thousands of homeless people; other times it’s just a disgruntled individual like Roxanne Rubin who tries to vote twice to see how easy it is to game the system. (She got her answer minutes later when she was arrested.) Lumping the Rubins with the Rajneeshees under an umbrella of “voter fraud” makes actual organized attempts to steal an election seem far more common than they are.
Finally, extremely rare instances of genuine organized voter fraud like the Rajneesh episode have an outsized impact on our societal consciousness. During every election cycle, conservative media outlets pass along anecdotes of homeless people supposedly being rounded up and bussed from precinct to precinct in order to commit fraud. Though there is no evidence that these events actually occurred, the allegations feed the public perception that voter fraud is a widespread problem that must be addressed by making it more difficult to vote. This, in turn, can lead to bad policy consequences. For example, even though Oregon’s existing laws successfully prevented Rajneesh’s voter fraud attempt, voters in the state overwhelmingly passed a ballot initiative in the next election imposing onerous new registration restrictions.
In the past half-century, there has been a dearth of actual organized voter fraud in the United States. But, as the Rajneeshees showed in grandiose fashion, there is an exception for every rule.