“This is absolutely a waste of tax dollars,” said Donna McLeod, a Democratic candidate for Gwinnett-based House District 105.
Gwinnett’s Board of Commissioners Chair Charlotte Nash, left, announces the approval of a new contract with MARTA on Wednesday, August 1 at the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center auditorium. Commissioner Tommy Hunter, District 3, is right. JENNA EASON / JENNA.EASON@COXINC.COM
Gwinnett’s call for a referendum in March came as a surprise.
Officials — and the public notice for this week's commission meeting — had long suggested that the vote would be added to the general election's ballots. Nash, who helped steer the new legislation that ultimately created metro Atlanta's new regional transit agency, had repeatedly said she'd like as much turnout as possible for such an historic referendum.
A week before Wednesday's meeting, the commission added a "brunch bill" referendum to November's ballot.
Gwinnett Commissioner John Heard had announced his intentions to vote against a November referendum but, like each of his four colleagues, ultimately voted in favor of the special election. He defended his position in a press release issued late Thursday, saying the separate referendum will remove "partisan divisions" from the issue.
Heard did not immediately respond to questions specifically about the cost of the standalone election.
Some transit advocates and Democrats have accused the all-Republican commission of delaying the MARTA vote to try and temper Democratic turnout in the several high-profile races being decided in November. Those races include the gubernatorial contest between Brian Kemp and Stacey Abrams; the Congressional contest between Rob Woodall and Carolyn Bourdeaux; several state legislative contests; and challenges to both Heard and commission colleague Lynette Howard.
Charles Bullock, a longtime political scientist at the University of Georgia, downplayed the effect a transit referendum would’ve had on turnout for those races.
He said Gwinnett’s leaders may have had another motivation, however.
Bullock said that, assuming governments want them to succeed, it’s not unusual for elections involving new taxes to be standalone affairs. He said the depressed turnout can prevent uninformed voters — who mainly showed up to weigh in on top-of-the-ballot races — from having a “knee-jerk” reaction to a question about taxes and quickly checking “no.”
Bullock estimated that turnout for a March special election would likely drop by 80 percent compared to November.
Regardless of when a referendum is held, Gwinnett voters will be deciding if the county’s contract with MARTA should be finalized. An affirmative result would do that — and trigger a new penny sales tax that would fund transit projects in Gwinnett until 2057.
Under the contract approved this week by Gwinnett commissioners, projects would be drawn from the county's transit development plan. That plan, formally adopted in July after several rounds of public input, makes recommendations ranging from heavy rail (from Doraville to Norcross, and possibly from Norcross to Gwinnett Place) to expanded local bus service.