Gwinnett County residents fill out paperwork before casting their ballot during early voting for the county’s MARTA referendum at the Board of Voter Registrations and Elections building in Lawrenceville on Feb. 25. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Photo: Alyssa Pointer
Photo: Alyssa Pointer

Numbers in on early turnout in Gwinnett MARTA referendum

Around 4,700 voters cast ballots during the first week of early voting in Gwinnett County’s landmark MARTA referendum.

The number may not sound like much for a county with more than 500,000 registered voters, but it has elections officials thinking it remains on pace for higher-than-usual turnout for a special election.

And while there’s a ways to go yet, with seven new polling locations opening Monday for the final two weeks of advance voting, breakdowns of the early turnout don’t skew well for pro-transit forces.

According to analysis performed by Ryan Anderson, the data guru behind GeorgiaVotes.com, more than 60 percent of the ballots cast through Sunday were submitted by white voters. More than 80 percent were cast by voters 50 or older.

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

COMPLETE COVERAGE: The AJC’s comprehensive Gwinnett MARTA voter’s guide

MORE: Gwinnett and MARTA: Clearing up frequently asked financial questions

It’s hardly an exact science and, to be clear, it’s not yet known how many of those ballots were cast for or against the referendum. But older white voters are generally the ones that most reliably fill the ballot box — and the ones most likely to oppose public transportation, according to recent polls and surveys.

That means that driving a younger, more diverse group of voters to the polls is key for those supporting the referendum’s passage on March 19. That’s not a new revelation, but one highlighted by the Week 1 turnout.

“We know from surveys that if everyone in the county votes, this referendum would pass easily, so the high turnout numbers are promising,” said Brian Robinson, a consultant working with the pro-referendum committee called Go Gwinnett. “That said, we expect the vote is tight, and we have much more work to do in turnout out ‘yes’ voters.”

The New Georgia Project Action Fund is another group advocating on behalf of the referendum. No formal opposition campaign has taken shape, but grassroots efforts on Facebook and other social media have started to gain more momentum in recent weeks. Transit opponent Joe Newton is planning a forum Tuesday night in Lawrenceville.

“We have more work to do and are launching a series of initiatives aimed at getting more working age people to the polls while educating older voters on the benefits of transit,” said Fred Hicks, campaign manager for the New Georgia Project Action Fund.

He said those include continued texting efforts to target younger voters and a “souls to the polls” event on Sunday.

Gwinnett overwhelmingly rejected MARTA the last time it voted on joining the system in 1990 but the county has since grown more accepting of mass transit. Due in part to the county’s changing demographics, the county’s conservative hardliners — who defeated transit expansion in the past — might be giving ground to more liberal political positions.

PODCAST: Understanding Gwinnett’s upcoming MARTA vote

ANALYSIS: Gwinnett residents could pay more than $100 a year for MARTA

And the dynamics of the early voting crowd could very well change in the next two weeks.

During the first week, only one advance in-person voting location (the main Gwinnett elections office in Lawrenceville) was open. Seven satellite early voting locations opened Monday and will now be open between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. every day through March 15.

Through 3 p.m. Monday, nearly 1,600 total voters had cast ballots at the new locations. Demographic breakdowns of those voters were not immediately available.

If approved, the referendum would consummate Gwinnett’s pending contract with MARTA and commit county residents and visitors to paying a new 1 percent sales tax until 2057. The proceeds — projected around $5.5 billion — would fund a dramatic expansion of transit services in the county.

The transit plan would include a roughly five-mile passenger rail extension from the Doraville MARTA station into the I-85/Jimmy Carter Boulevard near Norcross; about 50 miles of bus rapid transit routes (which operate in dedicated lanes and are often likened to “light rail on rubber tires”); and another 110 miles of “rapid bus” routes (which often operate in mixed traffic but have “queue jumpers” and other devices to help speed up travel).

The plan also includes eight new park-and-ride lots and roughly double the amount of local bus service that is currently offered.

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