On November 7, 2000, Willie Steen, a Navy vet who had served in the Persian Gulf during Desert Storm, went to cast his ballot for president at the St. Francis Episcopal Church in Tampa, Florida.
He brought his 10-year-old son, Willie Jr., to the polls for the first time. They waited a half hour to reach a poll worker. When Steen gave the poll worker his name, she searched a list of registered voters in the precinct and told him, “You can’t vote. You’re a convicted felon.”
“You must be mistaken,” a shocked Steen replied. “I’ve never been arrested in my life.” He worked at a hospital, a Tampa orthopedics center, that wouldn’t employ anyone with a felony conviction.
He left in embarrassment, struggling to explain to his son what had just happened. After fighting for his country abroad, he wasn’t able to exercise his most fundamental right at home. “I felt I was shafted,” Steen said. “I think there were a lot of things that weren’t done properly. My name was dragged through the mud.”
He later found out from journalist Greg Palast that he’d been confused with a convict named Willie O’Steen, who had committed a felony between 1991 and 1993, when Steen was in the Persian Gulf. Little did Steen know that the same thing was happening to voters across the state of Florida—and disproportionately to voters like him, who were African-American.
Before the election, Florida sent its county election supervisors a list of 58,000 alleged felons to purge from the voting rolls. Florida was one of eight states that prevented ex-felons from voting. The felon-disenfranchisement law dated back to 1868, when the state banned anyone with a felony conviction from voting unless the governor issued a pardon. The law targeted newly emancipated African-Americans, who during slavery were far more likely to be arrested than whites, including for such offenses as looking at a white woman. This racially discriminatory policy was still on the books in 2000. Blacks made up only 11 percent of registered voters in the state, but 44 percent of those on the purge list, which turned out to be littered with errors.
Hanging chads, butterfly ballots, the antics of Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, and thousands of Jews accidentally voting for Pat Buchanan in Palm Beach were among the stories that captured the headlines during the chaotic 36-day Florida recount between Al Gore and George W. Bush. The widespread and wrongful purging of registered voters was the most consequential—and least discussed—aspect of the Florida election.