Florida's controversial voter eligibility program is intended to purge non-citizens from its rosters. State election officials say it's necessary to protect the integrity of elections. But the U.S. Justice Department has filed a lawsuit, saying eligible voters could get caught up. Host Michel Martin talks to Florida Governor Rick Scott.
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Later in the program we are going to head into the Beauty Shop to hear what our panel of women journalists and commentators have to say about some provocative performances by two famous female artists, Erykah Badu and Madonna. But first, a news maker interview with the governor of Florida, Rick Scott.
His stated has been making headlines for a number of clashes with the federal government, most recently a controversial program that is intended to purge non-citizens from voter lists. The state of Florida and the federal government are suing each other over the program. The Justice Department says Florida is, quote, "unwilling to conform its behavior to the requirements of federal law," unquote.
Florida is demanding access to information from the Department of Homeland Security about just who's a citizen and who isn't. Governor Scott says this is a necessary step to ensure that the rights of legitimate voters are protected. And Governor Scott is with us now. Governor, thank you so much for joining us.
GOVERNOR RICK SCOTT: Michel, it's nice to be here today. You know, if you think about it, what we all care about is we want to have fair, honest elections, and none of us think that non-U.S. citizens should be participating in our elections. It's a crime for a non-U.S. citizen to participate in our elections. So what we've tried to do is make sure that your right as a citizen to vote is not diluted by somebody that doesn't have the right to vote.
Now, what we tried to get was a very good database that Homeland Security has called SAVE that we have a right to use for voter registration. For whatever reason, Homeland Security for the last year has decided not to give it to us. So we were put in a position that we had to sue them to get that database.
MARTIN: Well, the...
SCOTT: In the meantime, we took a voter vehicle data, which is a small sample, and guess what? We found that nearly 100 individuals that are non-U.S. citizens are registered to vote and over 50 have voted in prior elections, which is not right, it's a crime, and dilutes the rights of legitimate U.S. citizens to exercise the right to vote.
MARTIN: Governor, let's go back a little bit for folks who aren't familiar with the issue, or not as familiar with the issue as you are. What gave you the idea that this is something that you had to act on now?
SCOTT: Well, right after I got elected, I asked the Secretary of State, I said, look, how do we know that non-U.S. citizens are not voting in our elections? And they said it was basically - there was - no one checked. And I said that's not right. I said I want to make sure that only U.S. citizens vote. So I said how can we make sure?
And so that's when they started asking for the federal database, Homeland Security database, to make sure that only U.S. citizens voted. So that's how it got started.
MARTIN: The Justice Department, of course, as you know, has authorized action against your state in federal court. I just want to play a short clip from Attorney General Eric Holder. He was actually talking about the program yesterday before a Senate committee. This is just a brief excerpt from the clip, and I'll play it.
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ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: The question I think we have to ask ourselves, and this is on both sides of the aisle, do we want to be the first generation to restrict the ability of American citizens to vote? We have a bad history in that regard, but we have seen since the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, I think the most civil rights legislation that has ever been pass, an ability - we've seen an ability on the part of people who had been too long excluded from participating in our democracy, the opportunity to do just that. And we are a better country for it.
MARTIN: And to that end, I'm sure you've seen this, but the assistant U.S. attorney general, Thomas Perez, wrote a five-page letter to Florida's secretary of state saying that, quote, "Your program has critical imperfections which lead to errors that harm and confuse eligible voters."
He also says that this kind of voter purge is specifically barred by federal law this close to an election. How do you respond to that?
SCOTT: Well, first off, there's no voter purge. This is not a Republican or Democrat or independent issue. I've not met one person in our state that believes that non-U.S. citizens should be voting in our races. Now, we tried to do it the right way by using this Homeland Security database. For whatever reason, they've made the decision not to give it to us.
So we were forced because of their actions to use our motor vehicle data and we just had a small sample. And what we found is people that - non-citizens voting, non-citizens registering to vote. I cannot sit here as a governor of this state and not enforce our law that says that only Florida or only U.S. citizens get to vote in our elections.
I'm disappointed that Homeland Security has not given this database. I'm hopeful that they'll work with us to make sure because, look, I want people to vote in races. I want people to get to register to vote that are U.S. citizens. I want people to vet candidates, talk to them, and get out and vote.
MARTIN: To your argument that everyone believes that only eligible people should vote, I mean how do you address the argument or the concern that this really is partisan? It's designed to advantage one party over another - yours. The Miami Herald analyzed the proposed list and found it was dominated by Democrats, independents and Hispanics. I mean, how do you address the concern that this really is designed to weed out people who are most likely not to support your party?
SCOTT: Well, this is not an issue of support of one party or the other. This is an issue that U.S. citizens don't have the right to vote in elections in another country, but citizens of another country don't have the right to vote in our races either. And it's a crime to vote in our races. My job is to make sure that I enforce the existing laws.
MARTIN: Governor, I think the position of the federal government - in fact, we invited somebody from the Department of Homeland Security to participate in our conversation. They declined. But one of their officials told us that it's an accuracy issue, that the database that you're seeking is not designed for this purpose.
It doesn't contain information about citizens born in the United States, and they further make the point that there are lots of databases that have errors. For example, you know, it's been known that the no fly list has had errors. People have challenged their position on the no fly list. In fact, you know what? We had Kareem Abdul Jabbar, the famous basketball player, on the program.
He wound up on the no fly list and had to get himself off it. So how do you respond to the argument it just isn't intended toward this purpose?
SCOTT: The statute says that the state has a right to use that database for voter registration. That's the law. They need to comply with the law. And that's why, unfortunately, the Florida secretary of state's office had to sue to get access to that database, and we'll make sure that we do it the right way.
Not one U.S. citizen has been eliminated from a voter pool in Florida. Not one. And the process is, if you even are asked, you have 30 days to respond. There's a public notice in the newspaper. And then on Election Day if you go vote and they have taken you off the role, you still get to vote. You just vote provisionally. So we have very good due process with regard to this.
MARTIN: In a separate voting issue, a federal judge recently blocked part of your state's election law that you signed last year. Critics said it made it near impossible for voter registration groups to do their job. The district judge called some provisions harsh and impractical.
And again, this is being seen as an effort to keep people from voting who are not likely to vote for your party. It's seen as a partisan measure. How do you respond to that, to people who feel that way?
SCOTT: You know, it's surprising. I think there's 250-plus organizations doing voter registration. They have complied with the law. I mean, look, we're trying to make sure that our races are fair, that people have the opportunity to go register to vote and get out to vote, but again, you know, what we don't want are non-U.S. citizens voting.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with the governor of Florida, Rick Scott. We're talking about voting issues. And just a couple more things that are also in the news. Governor, of course, you know, a lot of people are following the Supreme Court, which is expected to rule this month on key parts of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
Critics call it Obamacare. You've been a leading opponent of the law. If the Supreme Court does uphold it, what are you going to do?
SCOTT: We're going to improve health care the right way. I mean, if you think about it, if you wanted to improve health care for this country, what you would do is you would, one, make sure that health care providers post their prices. You would create more competition, because, as we know, when there's more competition, prices get better, service gets better, access gets better.
You would allow insurance companies to sell across state lines to create more competition. You would give individuals the same tax breaks as employers. So you start buying your own policy. So then the preexisting condition issue would go away because when you change jobs you didn't lose your insurance and you would reward individuals for taking care of themselves. Don't smoke. Eat right. Exercise.
MARTIN: So it sounds like you're going to enforce it...
SCOTT: So then the cost of health care would go down.
MARTIN: It sounds to me like you're saying that you'll actually - if the Supreme Court rules to uphold it, it sounds like you're saying you'll implement it.
SCOTT: Just the opposite. Government run health care always does three things. It promises you the world. It'll do everything. They run out of money. They underpay providers, so then they don't provide the care. The taxes go up way too high, so it hurts business. So government health care has never worked anywhere in the world, and so the free market is going to improve, (unintelligible).
MARTIN: So what are you going to do? What's the plan?
SCOTT: Then what I want to do is to make sure there's plenty of competition for health care providers. Make sure that when you buy health care you know what it costs. Have more insurance companies compete in our state by selling insurance across state lines. I want to work with the federal government to make it - give you, as an individual, the same tax breaks as employers. So you buy your own policy, so when you change jobs, you don't lose your insurance.
I want to make sure that you get rewarded as an individual for taking care of yourself and, if you do that, the cost of health care will come down.
MARTIN: And, you know, I have to ask you about the Stand Your Ground law that's been such an important issue that's been so much discussed around the country in the wake of the shooting of the unarmed teenager, Trayvon Martin.
You convened a taskforce to examine the law and they held their first public hearing yesterday. I just wanted to ask what you're hearing from...
MARTIN: ...your citizens and what are you thinking about in regard to that?
SCOTT: Well, the first thing to think about in the Trayvon Martin case is you just - your heart goes out to those parents. I had the opportunity to sit down with the parents to let them know that I was going to bring in a new state attorney, Angela Corey, and Angela Corey's done a great job. She is making sure that there's due process for George Zimmerman, but justice prevails for the Martin family.
Now, I intervened the taskforce led by my Lieutenant Governor Jennifer Carroll and Reverend R.B. Holmes, a well respected minister in Tallahassee and the goal is to look at the law - look at the Stand Your Ground law, look at how it's been implemented. I'm a Second Amendment supporter. I believe in the Stand Your Ground law, but I think we need to always review our laws, see how they've been implemented and see if there's anything we need to change.
MARTIN: Before I let you go, Governor, on a very different topic - you know I can't let you go without asking about the Miami Heat heartbreaker last night.
SCOTT: I've got a bet with the Oklahoma governor, Mary Fallin, and I hope - unfortunately, we didn't win last night, but I know LeBron James is going to come through and make sure that I don't have to send her a key lime pie like I did for a football game last year.
MARTIN: I was going to say, what was the bet? You're going to send her a key lime pie? And what's she going to send you?
SCOTT: She gets - she's going to send me a basket of goods made, you know, in Oklahoma. So I'd rather keep...
MARTIN: You expecting that basket?
SCOTT: ...the pie and eat the pie myself.
MARTIN: You're expecting that basket?
SCOTT: I'm looking forward to that basket.
MARTIN: OK. Rick Scott is the governor of Florida. Governor, thank you so much for speaking with us.
SCOTT: Michel, have a great day.
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MARTIN: Coming up, megachurch Pastor Creflo Dollar was arrested recently after his daughter told police he choked and punched her after an argument. He was released on a $5,000 bond, but he says it was a family matter that should never have involved the police. We'll ask if star power helped or hurt him. And is spare the rod, spoil the child discipline still defensible or not?
We'll also talk about Erykah Badu and Madonna, who are raising eyebrows for recent nudity stints. Is it expressive art, a political statement or just plain obscene?
The ladies in the Beauty Shop weigh in. That's coming up on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.