March 7, 2019 Atlanta: MARTA General Manager/CEO Jeffrey Parker boards a train at the Five Points station next to a map of the rail lines and stops during a behind the scenes tour on Thursday, March 7, 2019, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

‘Surprisingly big’ turnout squelches Gwinnett’s MARTA expansion

A spike in voter participation helped doom Gwinnett’s MARTA expansion, but the turnout still paled in comparison to the droves of residents who would have cast ballots if it was held in November.

Nearly 92,000 voters cast ballots in the Tuesday referendum, which failed by about 8,000 votes. That’s more than voted in the July GOP runoff. And that’s more than voted in the Democratic and Republican primaries held in May combined. 

“It’s a surprisingly big turnout for this kind of election,” said Mark Rountree, a veteran Republican pollster.

The “yes” side blamed the defeat on the controversial decision to call Tuesday’s referendum in mid-March rather than adding it to the ballot during November’s midterm. By comparison, about 330,000 ballots were cast during the November election – and Democrats easily carried the county.

Bianca Keaton, the chair of the Gwinnett Democratic Party, called it a “textbook case of voter suppression” because of the timing.

“We didn’t lose,” she wrote on social media shortly after the final votes were tallied. “We simply delayed the inevitable. MARTA is coming to Gwinnett.”

More: Gwinnett’s MARTA referendum has failed

The intense attention still helped surpass turnout expectations on both sides of the transit debate. And it drew what data suggest is an older, whiter electorate than the more diverse bloc of voters who cast ballots in November.

The vote lost despite the support from some of the bigger names in Gwinnett County politics, including commission chair Charlotte Nash, who signed off on the idea to hold the vote during a special election. The sheriff and district attorney, some of the longest-serving Republicans in the county, also backed it. 

Gov. Nathan Deal endorsed the expansion, too, as did Stacey Abrams, who used her political celebrity to push the vote in a radio ad. And the Democratic Party of Georgia deployed staffers across the county, with some of the state’s best-known operatives hired to promote the referendum.

One name missing from the back-and-forth: Gov. Brian Kemp, who stayed on the sidelines. Pressed hours before the vote his stance on the initiative, he would only allow that the results would be “interesting.”

“I haven’t taken a position in any of the elections going on now,” he said. “I’ve been busy being governor.”

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About the Author

Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein is a political reporter who covers the governor's office and state politics for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.