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.