March 7, 2019 Atlanta: MARTA General Manager/CEO Jeffrey Parker boards a train at the Five Points station next to a map of the rail lines and stops during a behind the scenes tour on Thursday, March 7, 2019, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

With Election Day looming, ‘the heat is on’ in Gwinnett MARTA vote

On Tuesday, Gwinnett County’s voters will make a historic decision about public transportation, one that could alter the commutes of tens of thousands of people and help shape the economic future of metro Atlanta’s suburbs.

And despite Gwinnett residents’ growing willingness to embrace transit, passage of the county’s first referendum on joining MARTA in 29 years remains very much in the balance.

Supporters say they remain confident the measure will pass, if narrowly so. The majority of the county’s voters are in favor, they say. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent, tens of thousands of doors have been knocked on, mailers and text messages have been sent, and high-profile endorsements have been secured.

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

PODCAST: Understanding Gwinnett’s upcoming MARTA vote

But recent polling isn’t exactly favorable to the transit plan. Neither is the demographic breakdown of those who have already cast ballots.

And the pro-transit movement is still hoping for a rush of those younger, more diverse voters who haven’t yet hit the polls in significant numbers.

“If patterns in Gwinnett in recent elections hold true, the yes voters can overwhelm this on Election Day,” said Brian Robinson, a political consultant and spokesman for pro-transit advocacy group Go Gwinnett. “But yes voters have got to know that right now they’re behind. … The heat is on.”

March 7, 2019 Atlanta: MARTA General Manager/CEO Jeffrey Parker (from left), board chair Freda Hardage, and Chief of Rail Operations David Springstead ride a north bound train to Dunwoody during a behind the scenes tour on Thursday, March 7, 2019, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Because of the decision not to add the referendum to November’s mid-term ballots, the vote that could steer suburban metro Atlanta’s public transportation destiny for years to come will be decided by those who feel motivated enough to cast a ballot on a Tuesday in the middle of March.

“I didn’t even know it was happening until my mom told me,” Ashley Emmons, 26, said this week after casting a yes vote at the elections office in Lawrenceville. She said she’s pretty sure her peers are not engaged with the election.

“But I wish they knew, because we care about it the most.”

To be clear, “young” can be used more generally to describe voters in this county who are under age 50. Working age, if you will.

MORE: Gwinnett MARTA election: Is a formal opposition movement important?

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

And while the percentages have seen small but steady decreases over the last week, through Wednesday, analysis from georgiavotes.com shows that more than three-quarters of the roughly 27,000 voters who had cast early or absentee ballots were 50 or older. About 60 percent were white.

The correlations aren’t perfect, but that demographic is the one that’s most likely to be conservative and most likely to oppose public transportation (and the new 1 percent sales tax that would be exacted to fund Gwinnett’s transit projects, for that matter).

“There’s something about those old people,” said Joe Newton, the man behind a loosely organized opposition campaign. “They obtain wisdom.”

Karen and Tom Koots leave the Gwinnett County Voter Registration and Elections office in Lawrenceville after voting on the proposed MARTA expansion into Gwinnett County Saturday, March 9, 2019. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Gwinnett rejected MARTA in the 1970s and more recently in 1990. In the years since that last vote — a racially charged affair shot down by a more than 2-to-1 margin — Gwinnett has transformed.

It’s shifted from a community that was overwhelmingly white, conservative and resistant to any connection with the city of Atlanta to one with a deeply diverse population that’s increasingly accepting of more liberal politics.

Its population has nearly tripled and is rapidly approaching 1 million. As many as 500,000 more people are expected to make the county their home in the next 25 years. Traffic congestion is bad, especially along I-85, and is getting worse.

Getting out the vote

Multiple groups — Go Gwinnett, spearheaded by the local business community; the New Georgia Project Action Fund, the advocacy arm of the organization started by Democrat Stacey Abrams; and Yes to MARTA, led by the Sierra Club — have been active in the campaign pushing for Gwinnett’s referendum to succeed this time around.

The primary strategy of every group has not been to change people’s minds, but to answer any questions that likely “yes” voters have and remind them to actually vote.

Go Gwinnett has largely been the public face of the effort, the one that’s raised nearly $500,000, funded TV commercials and secured endorsements from high-profile Republicans like former Gov. Nathan Deal and Gwinnett’s sheriff, district attorney and public schools superintendent.

“We have maximized our resources. We feel confident about that,” said Robinson, a former Deal aide. “That we have taken the budget that we have and have identified and communicated with the right audience and made our case thoroughly.

Buttons that encourage people to vote yes for the MARTA referendum, at the Infinite Energy Forum in Duluth on Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019. EMILY HANEY / emily.haney@ajc.com
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The New Georgia Project Action Fund, meanwhile, has opted to operate largely underground. Its paid canvassers and volunteers have been knocking on Gwinnett doors since before the Super Bowl. They say they’ve hit 60,000 of them.

“You always want to do more in every campaign, but we have knocked a lot of doors, sent a lot of texts and have a great pulse on what people are concerned about,” campaign manager Fred Hicks said.

Gwinnett County itself has also hosted 18 informational sessions in the last several weeks. And officials like Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash — the self-described reformed transit skeptic who is largely responsible for the question even being up for a vote — have spoken at more than three dozen other community events.

“I find it hard to imagine there not being interest among that [under 50] age group in the outcome of this, wanting their voice to be heard on something that’s going to affect them more and for a longer period of time than any other age group,” Nash said.

But general interest and the efforts of various campaigns don’t necessarily mean young voters feel any urgency to hit the polls — or that they’re even aware of the referendum.

On a brilliant afternoon earlier this week, 30-year-old Lanae Jones spent about half an hour waiting on a bus at the Gwinnett County Transit hub near Gwinnett Place Mall. She lives in the Norcross area and relies on the bus to get to work and run errands.

“To do little things with her,” she said this week, pointing to her 6-month-old daughter. “Go to the post office and stuff like that.”

Jones said she didn’t know about the looming MARTA referendum. She wasn’t sure she would have the time to vote.

3/11/19 - Atlanta - Charlotte Nash, chair, Gwinnett County Commission, answers questions related to the MARTA referendum, which would extend MARTA to Gwinnett County if it passes, at the Commerce Club in Atlanta, Georgia on Monday, March 11, 2019. The future of transportation for other counties was also discussed as the decision in Gwinnett is likely to impact how places like Fulton County carry out the potential for MARTA there. Early voting has been underway for the referendum with official voting day being March 19. EMILY HANEY / emily.haney@ajc.com
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Tuesday’s referendum, which other metro Atlanta jurisdictions have said will serve as a test for their own transit initiatives, has been decades in the making. And while Gwinnett has changed dramatically in all that time, but the feelings of the county’s conservatives older guard has the potential to play an outsized role in a special election.

Bianca Keaton, the chair of the Gwinnett County Democratic Party, recently shared a series of responses she said she received while texting Gwinnett residents to encourage them to vote yes.

One response referenced an old, racist interpretation of the MARTA acronym while adding a new twist to refer to Gwinnett’s sizable Latino and Asian populations. Another was a picture of a Klansman.

Keaton said she knows those responses don’t represent the real Gwinnett of today. But they did serve as a wake-up call.

“I think there are some folks that are lulled into a sense of confidence that this thing is in the bag because everyone knows we want it,” Keaton said. “But we’re not talking about the same voter pool that would’ve come out in November.”

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