A Gwinnett County resident participates in a special voting during early voting at the Gwinnett County Board of Voter Registrations and Elections building in Lawrenceville, Monday, February 25, 2019. The special ballot asks Gwinnett County residence to approve or disapprove a contract for provisions to expand public transportation to the county. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Photo: ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM
Photo: ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Turnout strong on Day 1 of early voting in Gwinnett MARTA referendum

Hundreds of Gwinnett voters cast ballots on Monday, the first day of advance voting in the county’s MARTA referendum, as election officials brace for what could be a historic turnout for an off-year special election.

“Due to the high profile for this special election,” Gwinnett elections director Lynn Ledford said, “we are treating it the same as we would a mid-term.”

Those preparations include increased staffing and more voting machines than normal for a special election. And while it’s probably a long shot that turnout hits actual mid-term numbers (some 60 percent of Gwinnett’s 525,000 registered voters hit the polls in November), the steady stream of folks who cast MARTA-related ballots on Monday may prove the county’s preparations to be prudent.

There’s still nearly three weeks of early voting left before Election Day on March 19. The passage of the referendum would ratify Gwinnett’s pending contract with MARTA and commit the county to a new 1 percent sales tax until 2057.

The sales tax proceeds would pay for an extensive transit expansion, including a new four- or five-mile rail line from Doraville into the Norcross area; 50 miles of “bus rapid transit” lines, which operate in dedicated lanes and make fewer stops than local bus service; 110 miles of similar “rapid bus” routes connecting cities within Gwinnett; and several more park-and-ride lots and express bus routes into the Atlanta area.

IN-DEPTH: The AJC’s comprehensive Gwinnett-MARTA voter’s guide

PODCAST: Understanding Gwinnett’s upcoming MARTA vote

“I think the level of interest in this issue, everything we’re seeing indicates that we’re going to have a higher turnout than usual” for a special election, Gwinnett Commission Chair Charlotte Nash said. “And I think that’s a good thing.”

The on-ballot decision is pretty cut and dry: “Yes” means “I want MARTA to expand transit in Gwinnett and I’m OK with paying a new sales tax to cover it.” “No” means just the opposite.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there were plenty of voters on both sides who cast ballots Monday.

There was 39-year-old Duluth resident Dustin Grau, who described himself as “a firm yes.” He said his wife’s commute was dramatically affected by the I-85 bridge collapse in Atlanta in 2017.

“We’ve got to try something,” Grau said. “We had many a late night as she was struggling to find alternate routes.”

Then there was Kathy Price, 59, of the Dacula area.

“We do not need no more buses, no transit out here in this area,” she said. “We’ve got enough stuff starting to happen out this way. … Things are falling and everything’s starting to happen in Gwinnett like it’s happening in Atlanta.”

‘Very significant’

Turnout will undoubtedly be a key factor in the referendum.

Gwinnett has changed dramatically since the county’s last vote on MARTA in 1990, both demographically and politically. Around 60 percent of Gwinnett residents are black, Latino or Asian. Democrat Stacey Abrams took Gwinnett by more than 14 points in November’s race for Georgia governor.

Still, the stand-alone election puts the referendum in a more tenuous position. Older, white, conservative voters are the ones that most reliably head to the polls — and the ones most likely to be anti-transit, according to polling.

By 1 p.m. Monday, a total of 466 voters had cast ballots. Another 836 absentee ballots were mailed Monday morning. Ledford said both numbers were “very significant” for a special election.

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She said it’s hard to guess what turnout will be — but predicted that it could reach as much 20 or 30 percent. That wouldn’t be far off from the roughly 19 percent Gwinnett turnout during December’s statewide runoff election that include the secretary of state race.

“I think MARTA is just a very polarizing issue for Gwinnett County,” Ledford said.

A handful of grassroots-style Facebook groups have formed to oppose the referendum, and distaste for measure is certainly not rare among residents. There are also a few high-profile opponents like state Rep. Brett Harrell and Tea Party organizer Debbie Dooley. But no formal opposition effort has emerged.

The pro-transit side, meanwhile, has lots of organized support. At least three committees or advocacy groups are actively pushing for yes votes: “Go Gwinnett,” a ballot committee led primarily by local business leaders; “Yes to MARTA,” a ballot committee led by members of the Georgia Sierra Club; and the New Georgia Project Action Fund, which has already been canvassing voters and knocking on doors for weeks.

Nine Democratic state legislators from Gwinnett held a press conference Monday to in support of the referendum — and the Democratic Party of Georgia has also pledged its support and toward the effort.

Too big of a vote’

Early voting will be held at the Gwinnett elections office (455 Grayson Highway in Lawrenceville) from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day until March 15. That includes weekends.

Between March 4 and 15, early voting will also be available at seven satellite locations throughout the county. Those locations can be found here.

Voters can cast ballots at their normal precincts countywide on Election Day on March 19.

It’s the most advanced in-person voting that Gwinnett County has ever had. It’s the natural next step for a county that has steadily increased early voting opportunities, officials said.

It also could provide more opportunities for the pro-transit initiatives to get folks who may not traditionally vote in special elections to the polls.

Paige Havens, a spokesperson for the Go Gwinnett group, was among the first voters Monday morning.

“It’s too big of a vote not be the first out of the chute,” she said. “I really think this could be a historic vote in Gwinnett and I really wanted to be one of the first to cast a vote.”

Then again, there’s also more time for those like 77-year-old Glenn Johnson to cast their ballots.

“We have a bus service in this county, and I don’t see where we need MARTA in here,” the Lawrenceville resident said. “You’re looking at years to even get rail in here. So we’d be paying for it for years before we even get it.”

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.

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