Gwinnett MARTA election: How important is a formal opposition effort?

March 5, 2019 Lawrenceville: MARTA opposition leader Joe Newton opens a meeting at the Gwinnett historic courthouse as part of organized opposition efforts tied to Gwinnett’s MARTA referendum on Tuesday, March 5, 2019, in Lawrenceville. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
March 5, 2019 Lawrenceville: MARTA opposition leader Joe Newton opens a meeting at the Gwinnett historic courthouse as part of organized opposition efforts tied to Gwinnett’s MARTA referendum on Tuesday, March 5, 2019, in Lawrenceville. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Joe Newton is a one-man resistance movement.

He’s the guy at the public meetings handing out fliers purporting to spell out “THE TRUTH ABOUT MARTA.”

He's the one behind the increasingly popular "No MARTA in Gwinnett" Facebook page. He created martahoax.com.

“You’re not going to get what they promised you,” he said Tuesday at a panel discussion he put together in Lawrenceville.

VIDEO: More on MARTA

VIDEO: Learn more about metro Atlanta's bus and rail transit system in the AJC's "5 things to know" series.

Those who want Gwinnett County residents to vote yes in 11 days to bring MARTA to the county are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to canvass neighborhoods and purchase ads on TV.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution spoke to dozens of people from Norcross to Dacula and searched social media accounts and websites for signs of an organized opposition to the March 19 referendum, which would commit Gwinnett residents to paying a new 1 percent sales tax to fund billions of dollars in new transit projects.

>> IN-DEPTH: The AJC's comprehensive voter's guide to Gwinnett's MARTA referendum

>> PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Is Gwinnett traffic bad enough to push voters toward MARTA?

The newspaper found that Newton's efforts thus far make up just about the entirety of the organized opposition campaign— but that, when combined with several other factors, it may be all that's needed to kill a vote that could potentially reshape the economies and quality of life of metro Atlanta's suburbs for decades to come.

For all the demographic and political changes in Gwinnett County over the last three decades that signal an increasingly positive attitudes toward transit, the county's older, more conservative guard could still wield the most power at the ballot box — and they're not fans of the MARTA option.

"Given what we've seen so far with the voting behavior, if that volume trend holds it looks like [older, more conservative voters] are likely to have an outsize impact in this outcome," Ryan Anderson of georgiavotes.com told the AJC this week.

March 5, 2019 Lawrenceville: Local residents attend a MARTA opposition meeting at the Gwinnett historic courthouse as part of organized opposition efforts tied to Gwinnett’s MARTA referendum on Tuesday, March 5, 2019, in Lawrenceville. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
March 5, 2019 Lawrenceville: Local residents attend a MARTA opposition meeting at the Gwinnett historic courthouse as part of organized opposition efforts tied to Gwinnett’s MARTA referendum on Tuesday, March 5, 2019, in Lawrenceville. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

‘God knows what else’

A new poll that Rosetta Stone Communications conducted Tuesday for Channel 2 Action News found that, among the 1,000 Gwinnett voters contacted for the survey, more than 51 percent were opposed to the referendum. Another 39 percent supported it. The remaining 10 percent was undecided. The margin of error was 3.1 percent.

More than 90 percent of those surveyed were over 40 years old. About two-thirds were white.

Those polled do not match the demographics of Gwinnett’s overall electorate; just 42 percent of the county’s nearly 544,000 registered voters identified themselves as white. But if early advance voting numbers are any indication, it may be more reflective of turnout for the MARTA referendum.

Through Wednesday, the 10th day of early voting, around 12,000 people had cast ballots in-person or via mail, according to data analysis performed by Anderson. More than 64 percent of those voters were white. About 82 percent of voters were 50 or older.

Loganville resident Rachel Pace was among them. She voted no on Tuesday at the county elections office.

“It’s too easily accessed,” she said about potential crime on the MARTA system. “It’s too easy to get in and get out, and do what you need to do, and take what you need to take, and not be found.”

>> MORE: Gwinnett sheriff and DA endorse MARTA referendum

>> IN-DEPTH: Gwinnett and MARTA: Clearing up frequently asked financial questions

Her words echoed fears expressed during Gwinnett County's last MARTA referendum in 1990 (and a fear that's been largely discredited by multiple academic studies). The referendum was soundly defeated then. And while those types of worries are not uncommon among such voters, much of the opposition today seems to be based on the financial aspects of the deal.

Joe Newton, for instance, has largely focused his argument on the $5.5 billion in revenue officials have projected from the new transit-funding sales tax that would be put in place should the referendum pass. He argues that costs will be more than projected and that Gwinnett will end up dipping into its general fund — and raising property taxes on homeowners — to make up the difference.

(Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash has pushed back on that assertion, saying that the county is using "very conservative" revenue projections and will "manage to the budget," and that things like right-of-way and property acquisition could be covered by the sales tax.)

Newton also doesn't trust MARTA in general, which has a history of fiscal management issues but has run budget surpluses for six straight years. And he doesn't trust Gwinnett County's assertions that its pending contract with the transit agency gives it unprecedented local control.

“God knows what else they’re gonna tax us with,” he said.

And Newton’s not alone.

Longtime Lawrenceville resident Dennis Keye said he learned all he needed to know about the referendum from his Facebook posts. Keye and about three dozen others folks — almost exclusively older and white — visited the historic courthouse in Lawrenceville Tuesday night for the anti-transit panel discussion Newton organized.

They nodded and applauded with everything the panelists said.

“I for one plan on leaving Gwinnett County when this happens,” Keye said. “I do not intend to put up with this.”

March 5, 2019 Lawrenceville: MARTA opposition leader Joe Newton holds a meeting at the Gwinnett historic courthouse as part of organized opposition efforts tied to Gwinnett’s MARTA referendum on Tuesday, March 5, 2019, in Lawrenceville. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
March 5, 2019 Lawrenceville: MARTA opposition leader Joe Newton holds a meeting at the Gwinnett historic courthouse as part of organized opposition efforts tied to Gwinnett’s MARTA referendum on Tuesday, March 5, 2019, in Lawrenceville. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

‘A lot better picture’

With the opposition bloc largely coinciding with Gwinnett’s most reliable voters, the pressure is on transit supporters to convince their larger but typically less dependable group of voters to actually hit the polls.

And while supporters have recently secured MARTA endorsements from high-profile Republicans former Gov. Nathan Deal, Gwinnett Sheriff Butch Conway and Gwinnett District Attorney Danny Porter, advocacy groups know that getting out a younger, more diverse electorate is their best chance to win.

Groups like Go Gwinnett, the Sierra Club-backed “Yes to MARTA,” the New Georgia Project Action Fund and the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials say they’re trying to do that: knocking on tens of thousands of very specific doors, sending mailers, texting instead of robo-calling.

They have little to show for their efforts thus far, however, and admit they have work to do — but say they’re not yet surprised or discouraged. There’s more than a week of early voting left and Election Day still to come.

“We are confident that diverse communities will turn out on March 19th and have their voice heard in this important vote,” said Karuna Ramachandran, the deputy director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta.

Terry said his team’s efforts were always targeted toward this week and next. Other groups have suggested they purposefully started out with a low profile to try and avoid sparking a backlash.

>> PODCAST: Understanding Gwinnett's upcoming MARTA vote

>> ANALYSIS: Gwinnett residents could pay more than $100 a year for MARTA

“After this first weekend of Saturday and Sunday voting” at satellite polling locations, Terry said, “I think you’re going to get a lot better picture of where we stand.”

That may well be true. Hamilton Mill resident Michael Beck hopes it’s not.

Beck helps run a Facebook page called “No MARTA” that has around 300 followers. The group has printed bumper stickers (which Beck was handing out Tuesday at Newton’s forum), but its efforts are restricted by a lack of funding.

A GoFundMe page he started for the effort raised $200.

“All we have is reality, which easily shows this MARTA thing is a terrible idea,” Beck said. “But sadly, reality is masked by professional propaganda.”

March 5, 2019 Lawrenceville: Mary Ann Blevins holds a bumper sticker she picked up with handout materials while attending a MARTA opposition meeting against Gwinnett’s MARTA referendum at the Gwinnett historic courthouse on Tuesday, March 5, 2019, in Lawrenceville. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
March 5, 2019 Lawrenceville: Mary Ann Blevins holds a bumper sticker she picked up with handout materials while attending a MARTA opposition meeting against Gwinnett’s MARTA referendum at the Gwinnett historic courthouse on Tuesday, March 5, 2019, in Lawrenceville. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

GWINNETT’S 2019 MARTA REFERENDUM

The ballot question: "Voters will see the ballot question phrased this way when they visit the polls: "Gwinnett County has executed a contract for the provision of transit services, dated as of August 2, 2018. Shall this contract be approved? YES __ NO __"

What it means: A yes vote would be a vote in support of ratifying Gwinnett's pending transit service contract with MARTA, allowing it to take over Gwinnett's current transit services and greatly expand them — including a possible rail extension into the Norcross area and an extensive bus system with diverse options.

A yes vote would also trigger a new 1 percent sales tax to pay for such projects. Purchases in Gwinnett are currently subject to 6 percent sales tax. The new countywide sales tax would remain in effect until 2057 and garner billions of dollars. Collected funds would be remitted to Gwinnett County, which would then write checks to MARTA for projects and operations.

Key dates: Election Day is March 19.

Advance in-person voting will be held at the Gwinnett elections office (455 Grayson Highway in Lawrenceville) and at seven satellite locations every day between now and March 15, including weekends.

Voting hours are between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. Satellite locations can be found at gwinnettcounty.com.

Election Day voting will take place at each of the county’s 156 regular voting precincts.

AJC’s COMPLETE COVERAGE

Gwinnett voters will go the polls on March 19 in a historic special election that could change the face of metro Atlanta’s suburbs.

Residents there will decide if Georgia’s second most populous county will join the MARTA system and chip in a new 1 percent sales tax to pay for billions of dollars in transit improvements. A successful referendum in Gwinnett may ignite action for more mass transit in other metro Atlanta counties that have long been resistant to the idea.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will provide comprehensive coverage leading up to the vote and on Election Day. Our reporters will help readers understand the issues, the key players, what’s at stake, and provide information for voters to make an informed decision at the ballot box.

Where they stand

Plans to bring transit, especially MARTA, to the suburbs has been a controversial topic for many years. And Gwinnett’s upcoming referendum is no exception.

AJC reporters have spoken to hundreds of people in the county, including government officials, residents, and supporters of transit and their opponents.

Here’s what people are telling the AJC about the referendum:

PRO

  • The plan will spur economic development in Gwinnett
  • Commuters need relief from car-clogged streets and highways
  • The plan gives Gwinnett more local control than other MARTA counties

CON

  • MARTA is not a reliable system
  • The plan does not include significant heavy rail
  • Gwinnett taxpayers may be exposed to additional costs