Pandemic, long ballot, confusion may have cost Gwinnett transit vote

Gwinnett County Transit express buses depart for downtown Atlanta from the Express Bus Park and Ride lot at Sugarloaf Mills in Lawrenceville. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM AJC FILE PHOTO

Combined ShapeCaption
Gwinnett County Transit express buses depart for downtown Atlanta from the Express Bus Park and Ride lot at Sugarloaf Mills in Lawrenceville. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM AJC FILE PHOTO

When Gwinnett County voters rejected a transit expansion plan last year, most people thought the timing doomed the proposal. The vote took place during a low-turnout special election in which it was the only issue.

But 20 months later, in a general election that saw record turnout across the county and swept Democrats into power after 30 years of Republican rule, residents again voted down a plan that would have built a $12.1 billion transit system in Gwinnett.

Polling showed the results would be close. And they were: The referendum lost by 1,013 votes, out of 398,041 cast.

While the margin is within the range for a possible recount, Gwinnett Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash said she is disinclined to ask for one.

“I have a lot of faith in how our election staff handled the election,” Nash said. “You’re just not likely to see a change in the number of votes. I wouldn’t expect to see enough to flip the results of the referendum.”

There are many theories for why voters again rejected transit expansion. The possible culprits include the coronavirus pandemic and economic fallout, an electorate that was overwhelmed by other races, an opposition campaign that included disinformation and quibbles with the plan itself.

“A lot of people have been susceptible to various misinformation campaigns this political season,” said Joe Allen, executive director of the Gwinnett Place Community Improvement District.

One thing is clear: The defeat can’t be blamed strictly on partisan politics. Democrats who won nearly every county office didn’t carry the transit vote with them. And several Republicans, including Nash, were supportive of the measure.

Buford resident Dan Matthews, 62, said the plan itself led to his “no” vote.

Matthews said he doesn’t necessarily oppose more transit. But he said a $1.4 billion MARTA heavy rail extension from Doraville to Jimmy Carter Boulevard was “a boondoggle” that wouldn’t benefit enough people. If he has to drive to transit, Matthews said, he might as well keep going.

“You’re going to have to have something better to sell me,” he said.

Snellville Mayor Pro Tem Dave Emanuel also cited the rail line as a deal-breaker for many residents. He said the money would be better spent on other transit priorities, like the on-demand, door-to-door bus service Gwinnett tested in Snellville last year.

“Adding one (rail) station to the northwest part of the county does nothing for every other part of the county,” he said.

Though MARTA was only a small piece of the project, and Gwinnett would have maintained control of the system, Fred Dawkins said he thought the opposition succeeded in tying the referendum closely to Atlanta’s principal transit operator.

Dawkins, the chairman of the Gwinnett Transit Education Forum, said there was “no substantive information” in a mailer he received, or on an opposition website that tied MARTA to the spread of the coronavirus. But he said those efforts found an audience.

“I just think there were a lot of voters who once they learned MARTA was still a piece, that was enough for them to vote against it,” he said. “I think there was a misunderstanding about MARTA’s role.”

Dawkins' organization tried to educate people about the referendum, and he said he thought they did all they could. Around 1,400 people viewed information on the group’s website, and text messages were sent to 50,000 registered voters.

Sharon Goldmacher, who led the advertising campaign, said digital ads were displayed 2.3 million times, and speakers went to online meetings of the Council for Quality Growth, Kiwanis clubs and community improvement districts to talk about the referendum.

Still, Nash said it seemed there were a lot of people who didn’t have a strong enough opinion to vote on transit. More than 18,000 people who filled out ballots didn’t cast a vote on the referendum, and almost 5,000 people who voted in the race for county commission chair left that question blank.

“That says to me it was an unfamiliar issue to them,” she said.

The newly elected commission chairwoman, Nicole Love Hendrickson, said she thought outside groups would have had more time to inform voters if commissioners had called for the vote earlier in the year. They decided in late July to put it on for the general election.

“All around, we missed too many opportunities to get the word out,” Hendrickson said. “A lot of the anti-transit folks were really just spreading misinformation. It’s really unfortunate.”

The “coronavirus bubble” many residents are in may have been a factor as well, said Bianca Keaton, the chair of Gwinnett’s Democratic party. Keaton said many residents are working from home when possible and aren’t experiencing the same frustrations with traffic and long commutes that they normally would.

It’s also possible that a special tax for education — which passed overwhelmingly — siphoned votes from people who chose between tax measures because of the pandemic’s economic fallout. County commissioners previously discussed having two taxes on the ballot as a point of concern.

And Art Sheldon, conservation chair of Gwinnett’s Sierra Club chapter, said he worries competing tax measures could be a factor again if Gwinnett residents are asked to reconsider transit in 2022. Another transportation tax is already slated for the ballot that year.

Officials interviewed for this story said they expect transit will again be voted on in Gwinnett, but aren’t sure when.

Some cities across the country — including Los Angeles, Denver and Seattle — have succeeded with major transit referendums. Closer to home, Atlanta and Clayton County voters have approved transit expansions in recent years.

Joseph Hacker, a transportation planning expert at Georgia State University, said cities are usually the most successful selling transit expansions. Gwinnett, for all its population growth, remains a low-density suburban county.

Nash, the outgoing commission chairman, said many who moved to Gwinnett did so to get away from a city environment, and worry increased transit might replicate it.

Hacker said a more limited project list and shorter time frame might have more success in Gwinnett. He’s not surprised the referendum failed.

Selling major transportation initiatives to voters is tricky, he said, in part because the scale of such plans can be difficult for voters to understand.

“A penny increase in the sales tax for the next 30 years to do all this stuff? That’s almost incomprehensible,” he said. “In 30 years, you’ll live in a new Gwinnett County. Hell, in 30 years, I’m going to be dead.”

Kellie Hickman has lived in Gwinnett for more than 30 years, and she’s seen plenty of change.

Hickman, who lives near the proposed new MARTA station at I-85 and Jimmy Carter Boulevard in Norcross, said she thinks more transit would help with traffic, improve air quality and encourage economic development.

She hoped others would agree with her, and vote for the measure.

“Traffic is horrendous every day. People complain about it,” she said. “Here we have a possible solution. I thought for sure it would pass.”

About the Authors