Paige Havens of Go Gwinnett gets a hug from Mason Havens after they found out Gwinnett County’s MARTA referendum failed during an election night watch party at Slow Pour Brewing Company in Lawrenceville on Tuesday, March 19, 2019. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

MARTA in Gwinnett: Why the referendum failed

In a crowded brewery full of disappointed transit supporters late Tuesday, Charlotte Nash gave the opposition — which had just killed Gwinnett’s first MARTA referendum in three decades — its due credit.

“They did a better job of getting their message out than we did,” Gwinnett’s commission chairwoman said.

The pro-transit campaign — backed by business interests and comprised of multiple groups across the political spectrum — had hundreds of thousands of dollars at their disposal.

The opposition effort was armed with just a few Facebook pages and an intense distrust of MARTA, local government and tax hikes.

“Very encouraging that the pro MARTA folks spent probably over $750,000 and lost to a true grassroots campaign!” said David Hancock, a United Tea Party of Georgia leader on Facebook late Tuesday. “Money doesn’t always buy elections!”

So how did a MARTA referendum fail in a county where survey after survey revealed an increased appetite for transit, and where recent election cycles have shown a dramatic shift toward more liberal politics that should support such efforts?

‘Bail them out’

Many advocates have spent the hours since Tuesday’s results blaming the timing of the election, a politically motivated decision to call a special election rather than adding the issue to last November’s mid-term ballots.

Initial precinct-level analysis of Tuesday’s results found that, generally speaking, voters in areas where the most substantial transit improvements were promised — like the I-85 and Peachtree Industrial Boulevard corridors — were the most likely to support the referendum.

MAP: Gwinnett voters rejected MARTA. How did your neighbors vote?

But there weren’t enough yes votes there on Tuesday to best the opposition in other parts of the county. Many believe the huge turnout for the mid-term would have turned that on its head.

However, the extra sales tax that would’ve been put in place to cover transit expansion was a difficult political pill to swallow for some taxpayers, and the small opposition force was able to appeal to other voters by resurrecting decades-old fears of public transportation and MARTA’s previous fiscal woes.

“Voters remember the long history of corruption, inefficiency and financial problems of MARTA,” said Snellville voter Ken Higgins, “and felt Gwinnett was supposed to bail them out.”

The folks who ran the advocacy campaigns — Go Gwinnett, the New Georgia Project Action Fund, and Yes To MARTA — say the standalone election created an uphill battle and that an earlier start with their campaign would’ve helped.

Go Gwinnett, the committee with largely backed by Republicans with ties to the business community, didn’t meet until mid-January and started from scratch financially. That decision was largely driven by Nash, who feared voter fatigue if efforts started too quickly after November’s contentious election season. She stood by that decision Wednesday, saying she’s not sure how much it would’ve accomplished.

The New Georgia Project Action Fund and other members of an unofficial coalition also started knocking on doors and putting out feelers to potential voters in January.

“This did serve the purpose of beginning an in-depth and serious conversation,” Go Gwinnett spokesman Brian Robinson said of the referendum. “And I think if there was a shortcoming of this, it was that the conversation wasn’t long enough. The ability to raise awareness required a little more time.”

Fred Hicks, the New Georgia Project Action Fund’s campaign manager, said the efforts should’ve started “no later than the day after” November’s general election.

With a complicated contract with MARTA and the complex transit plan before voters, Robinson and Hicks said, building a knowledge-base within an entire community is a slow process.

“It’s easier to defend the status quo than advocate for substantive change,” Robinson said.

The overall turnout of 91,000, while just 17 percent of Gwinnett’s registered voters, was higher than expected. The no votes took the election by about 8 points.

Despite that, the advocacy groups largely defended the strategy behind their get out the vote efforts, which involved targeting primarily younger, more diverse voters. Hicks conceded that perhaps a more concerted effort to physically get people to the polls could have helped.

The leaders of the pro-transit groups also defended the fact that there was little coordination among the groups.

Opponents of the MARTA plan say the transit backers were out of touch with what voters want.

“The vote is a clear message from Gwinnett County taxpayers that want dependable and innovative solutions to our traffic problems now, not 20 years from now,” said Julianne Thompson, a GOP strategist and Gwinnett resident.

Standalone election 

Nash and the county commission’s decision last August to call the referendum for March — rather than adding it to ballots during the November mid-term election — drew instant criticism from Democrats and transit advocates. They argued that a lower turnout standalone election would increase the odds of failure.

They were right, and they’re still not happy.

“Concerns were raised, but they were ignored,” said Rep. Pedro Marin, the Democratic leader of Gwinnett County’s state House delegation, on Wednesday. “Politicians placed their interests before the needs of those they serve, and the long-term interests of Gwinnett County.”

In a post-referendum Facebook post, Gwinnett Democratic Party leader Bianca Keaton called the decision “voter suppression.”

Nash said at the time of the decision that it was a compromise to get the support of as many fellow commissioners as possible. Former Commissioner John Heard recently told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that state Republican leaders suggested the referendum be moved, the presumption being that adding transit to the ballot would’ve given Democrats more motivation to hit the polls last year.

Heard, fellow Commissioner Lynette Howard and most of Gwinnett’s Republican state delegation members lost their seats to Democrats anyway. Republican U.S. Congressman Rob Woodall won re-election by just 400 votes. He later announced it would be his final campaign.

Even after Tuesday’s failed referendum, Nash said she wouldn’t call the timing a mistake.

“But it’s certainly a chance to look at making the right choice the next time we call it,” she said.

Nash has made it no secret that another transit referendum is likely in the offing for Gwinnett. And while she declined to propose a specific date, she vowed any such measure would be decided during a “big election.”

—Staff writer Amanda Coyne contributed to this article.

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