How pro-transit forces are trying to drive turnout in Gwinnett

2/22/19 - Norcross - Michelle Sanchez with the New Georgia Project Action Fund speaks with Kimberley Coleman while canvassing in support of the MARTA referendum on Friday, February 22, 2019 in Norcross, Georgia. Early voting for the referendum begins on February 25. The election is March 19. The New Georgia Project Action Fund have already knocked on thousands of doors and don’t plan to slow down anytime soon. EMILY HANEY / emily.haney@ajc.com

In her khaki pants and bright yellow New Georgia Project T-shirt, Michelle Sanchez walks the streets of this aging Lawrenceville-area neighborhood on a foggy Friday trying to find very specific voters — Latino folks, black folks, youngish folks, residents she says would likely vote in favor of Gwinnett County's MARTA referendum on March 19.

She’s consults the app on her phone, seeking the address of the voter she’s trying to reach. She knocks on several doors. Each time, no dice.

Then, finally, House Number 10: a bright pink number with white lattice hung from the porch rails. Sanchez twice completes her customary knock (shave-and-a-haircut, two-bits) and no one answers. She turns around to leave and makes it down most of the driveway — then a white Kia SUV pulls in. Bingo.

Sanchez and her colleagues at the New Georgia Project Action Fund — an advocacy arm of the group formed years ago by rising Democratic star Stacey Abrams — represent just one of several organizations advocating for Gwinnett's historic MARTA referendum. Their politics, and their specific approaches, vary. But their goal is largely the same: identify voters that will likely support transit and get them to the polls.

Their combined efforts represent a sizable — and perhaps surprising — show of force in support of the vote that, one way or another, will shape the future of Gwinnett and the entire metro Atlanta region. And with an opposition effort that currently consists primarily of a few Facebook groups, the efficacy of the pro-transit turnout efforts could very well swing the election.

ExploreIN-DEPTH: The AJC’s comprehensive Gwinnett-MARTA voter’s guide
ExplorePODCAST: Understanding Gwinnett’s upcoming MARTA vote

2/22/19 - Norcross - Michelle Sanchez with the New Georgia Project Action Fund drives to canvass in support of the MARTA referendum on Friday, February 22, 2019 in Norcross, Georgia. Early voting for the referendum begins on February 25. The election is March 19. The New Georgia Project Action Fund have already knocked on thousands of doors and don’t plan to slow down anytime soon. EMILY HANEY / emily.haney@ajc.com

‘In an intentional way’

The referendum’s passage would make the suburban county of nearly a million people a member of MARTA and commit residents and visitors to paying a new 1 percent sales tax until 2057. The tax revenues would cover the cost of new transit projects like a rail extension from Doraville to Norcross, bus rapid transit and greatly expanded local bus service.

While Gwinnett has changed demographically and politically since its last vote on MARTA in 1990 — Abrams herself took the long-conservative county by more than 14 points in November — the issue being placed on a standalone ballot has put pro-transit forces in a pinch. There are still plenty of older, more conservative voters in Gwinnett, and they’re the ones who most reliably vote in special elections — and the ones most likely to vote no.

“What’s very clear to me,” Fred Hicks, the New Georgia Project Action Fund’s campaign manager, “is that this whole thing hinges on who comes out to vote.”

Hicks said his group has had paid canvassers like Sanchez wandering Gwinnett since before the Super Bowl. It hopes to hit 100,000 doors by Election Day.

They’re not alone in the push.

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There's also the "Yes to MARTA" committee, which is being led by members of the Georgia Sierra Club. They've been canvassing and hosting events to try and touch base with 60,000 folks they've identified as environmentally-conscious voters.

The Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials has joined theeffort recently too, with the goal of calling and visiting as many Latino voters as possible. They are sending mailers to all 33,000 or so Latino households in the county.

The Democratic Party of Georgia recently pledged to go "all in" on the referendum, lending resources and other support to aid local efforts. Gwinnett's arm of the Democratic Party is canvassing itself and joining some of the efforts led by other groups, including texting efforts led by New Georgia.

There's also the "Go Gwinnett" committee, spearheaded by local business people and Rotarians. That group has kept its strategy close to the vest but canvassing and phone-banking and social media ads are all on the table.

“I want to stress, we’re trying to do this in an intentional way,” Paige Havens, a Go Gwinnett spokeswoman, said. “We are working a great deal on voter identification and making sure that those people who understand and appreciate the true benefit of transit are out for the vote.”

There is an education component to all of the advocacy groups’ efforts. It’s clear that many Gwinnett residents, even if they’re aware of the referendum, don’t know much about the county’s pending contract with MARTA or that the plan involves a lot more than just a four- or five-mile passenger rail extension from Doraville to Norcross.

But the goal is not really to flip those opposed to transit. It’s to get those already in favor to the polls.

“The thing is, we know that transportation here in Gwinnett is popular,” said Bianca Keaton, the new chair of the Gwinnett County Democratic Party. “It would have passed if it were scheduled during a regular election, when they knew people would come out.”

January 11, 2019 Atlanta - (From left) Greg Cantrell, Paige Haven and Marlon Allen listen during a kickoff meeting at The Hudgens Center for Art and Learning in Duluth on Friday, January 11, 2019. Go Gwinnett, the formal pro-transit advocacy group that will be pushing for Gwinnett to approve its March referendum on joining MARTA, hold its kickoff meeting Friday. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

‘Being able to get around’

As it turns out, the woman in the white Kia, the one in the driveway in Lawrenceville, is well aware of the referendum. She tells Sanchez, the 33-year-old canvasser from the New Georgia Project, that she plans to vote yes. And that she’ll tell her family members to do so, too.

“I think it would help when it comes to more jobs and people being able to get around,” Kimberly Coleman, 47, says. “And maybe reduce the congestion of traffic too.”

Like Coleman, advocates of Gwinnett's transit push believe expanded service would help relieve congestion, improve job opportunities for residents, drive economic development and help reduce the negative impact of the 500,000 or so new residents expected to move to Gwinnett in the coming decades.

ExploreIN-DEPTH: A breakdown of what transit plan would bring to Gwinnett

Some detractors say that the $5.5 billion plan that would guide new transit projects if the referendum passes is simultaneously too expensive and lacking in coverage for the entire county. Others simply don't want to pay a new tax or are opposed to public transportation more generally.

Count Sanchez among the former group. After speaking with Coleman, she happily gets back into her own car and drives to her next destination — a row of townhomes a few streets over.

She has slightly better luck than she did with Coleman’s neighbors. She gets a couple folks in a row, then a bonus woman unloading groceries at a house that’s not even on her list.

“It’s really nice when people’s faces light up at information they didn’t know that is valuable to them, and that they can act on,” Sanchez said. “And they can actually feel like they can do something.”

2/22/19 - Norcross - Michelle Sanchez with the New Georgia Project Action Fund looks for the next address while canvassing in support of the MARTA referendum on Friday, February 22, 2019 in Norcross, Georgia. Early voting for the referendum begins on February 25. The election is March 19. The New Georgia Project Action Fund have already knocked on thousands of doors and don’t plan to slow down anytime soon. EMILY HANEY / emily.haney@ajc.com

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.

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 has started at the Gwinnett elections office (455 Grayson Highway in Lawrenceville) and will be held there every day through March 15, including weekends.

Between March 4 and 15, advance in-person voting will also be held at several satellite locations. Those can be found here. Hours are 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

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