Gwinnett’s standalone MARTA election could cost more than $500,000

Gwinnett's standalone special election on joining MARTA would likely cost the county at least $500,000, officials confirmed.

The county commission voted Wednesday to call the public referendum regarding MARTA and a transit-funding sales tax for March 19, 2019, rather than add it to ballots for November's general election. The transit vote would currently be the only thing up for a vote in March.

Preparing for the election and opening and staffing all 159 of Gwinnett’s Election Day voting precincts would cost “somewhere in the ballpark of $500,000,” county spokesman Joe Sorenson said. The figure could be more, depending on what decisions are made about things like satellite early voting locations and weekend voting.

“I believe that having as much support from members of the Board of Commissioners for the ballot question is important enough to warrant the cost of the special election,” Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash said Friday. “We will include funds for the special election as we prepare the proposed budget for 2019.”

The Gwinnett Democratic Party, meanwhile, has issued a call to action, urging residents to call their representatives and demand the vote be rescheduled for November.

“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

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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.