Gwinnett has now rejected MARTA three times, including in 1971 and 1990. Since the last vote, the county has nearly tripled in population and shifted from a conservative suburb to a deeply diverse community that's rapidly urbanizing and has shown an increased acceptance of political issues like mass transit.
But the decision to call Tuesday's referendum for a March special election — and not add it to ballots during last November's mid-term election — provided an uphill battle for pro-transit supporters.
That battle continued into Election Day. And proved a losing one.
Voting started slow and picked up slightly during lunch time. The true pulse of the electorate was hard to determine based on interviews at the polls, making it difficult to determine who the low turnout would favor.
However, advance voting demographics and recent polling suggested the measure would fail.
“I pray to God it fails,” said 76-year-old Jim Wehner, who voted no in Lilburn. “All we’re doing is becoming a money cow for MARTA.”
Several hours later, 32-year-old Justin Pass took his 2- and 5-year-old children along to vote at Norcross’ Best Friend Park. He voted yes.
“I feel like it’s good to have options,” he said. “And there are unfounded negative connotations with [MARTA]. It’s just a lot of people taking it to work.”
By late afternoon, some 25,000 voters had cast ballots. When added to the advance in-person votes, pro-transit forces suggested their target turnout numbers were still in reach.
“Right now I think it’s in our sweet spot,” Fred Hicks, the New Georgia Project Action Fund’s campaign manager, said around 5 p.m.
The opposition was confident too.
“I really don’t think people who work for a living want to pay for this, considering the history of MARTA,” said Joe Newton, who opposed the referendum. “They just don’t want to do it.
Nash — who helped devise the county's transit plan, lobbied for the legislation that made its referendum possible and later went along with the controversial call to hold the vote during a special election — spoke at dozens of community meetings and town halls in recent weeks.
Go Gwinnett, the pro-transit committee backed by the business community, secured a number of high-profile endorsements, including those of ex-Gov. Nathan Deal and Gwinnett’s conservative sheriff.
But the main thrust of the efforts by Go Gwinnett and the New Georgia Project Action Fund were get-out-the-vote efforts targeted specifically at those deemed likely to support the referendum. The primary goal was not to change the minds of the opposition.
That push continued Tuesday. Go Gwinnett and the New Georgia Project Action Fund both said their crews were knocking on doors and waving signs and texting potential voters throughout the day.
It wasn’t enough.
State Rep. Brett Harrell was one of the few elected Gwinnett Republicans to take a public stance on the vote.
“The citizens of Gwinnett recognized tonight that we can do so much better,” he said Tuesday night.
The opposition also remained active.
Newton, the author of multiple anti-transit Facebook pages and websites, admitted Tuesday that he was also behind robocalls that recently went out to some Gwinnett voters.
A call that went out Tuesday suggested that MARTA “planned to put thousands of apartments” in Gwinnett should the referendum pass.
“That’s not good for Gwinnett,” the call said.
The county commission's decision to hold the referendum Tuesday rather than add it to ballots during November's higher turnout mid-term election drew instant criticism from Democrats and transit advocates. They suggested that a lower turnout standalone election would increase the odds of failure in a county where polls and surveys have shown increased acceptance of transit but older, more conservative voters tend to show up at the polls during standalone contests.
“For the thousands of working families across Gwinnett who need public transit, today’s vote is hard fought and dearly lost,” Democratic Party of Georgia chairwoman Nikema Williams said in a statement. “In spite of the deliberate decision to place this election in an off month and undermine voter turnout, we saw a bipartisan coalition come together for transit, volunteers hustling to get out the vote, and thousands of voters show up to say yes to MARTA.”
Indeed, Tuesday’s referendum is unlikely to be the last time Gwinnett County residents hear about transit expansion.
Nash, who spent Tuesday night chatting with partygoers and intermittently checking election results on her cellphone at Go Gwinnett’s watch party, . The commission chairman has been restricted from advocating for the referendum due to county ethics rules, but said after the polls closed that transit was “too important” not to be expanded in Gwinnett eventually.
After the final results came in, she had this to say: “The main thing now is to choose the right date for the next referendum.”
WHAT THEY WERE VOTING ON
Approval of Gwinnett’s MARTA referendum would mean ratifying a pending contract between the county and the transit agency. Gwinnett residents and visitors would be obligated to pay a new 1 percent sales tax until 2057 to fund a dramatic expansion of transit in the county.
The expansion would include a heavy rail extension from Doraville into the Norcross area, a bus rapid transit network and other expanded bus service.