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Voting advocates say ‘vigilance’ needed during Gwinnett’s MARTA election

Gwinnett officials are confident that every vote will be counted during the county’s historic referendum on joining MARTA two months from now.

But some voting rights advocates — including those who cite Gwinnett’s disproportionate rate of absentee ballot rejections during November’s general election — remain wary.

Gwinnett Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash said she is confident that elections staff “will do everything possible to ensure that the March referendum and all associated actions are handled properly.”

That, according to court orders and guidance from the Secretary of State’s office, was not always the case in November. Gwinnett elections officials were ultimately instructed to re-evaluate and count hundreds of absentee ballots they had previously rejected due to issues like signature mismatches, address discrepancies and birthdate issues.

Those orders, most of which are part of ongoing litigation, are likely to remain in place for Gwinnett’s March 19 special election. But Lauren Groh-Wargo, who was the campaign manager for Democrat Stacey Abrams during last year’s gubernatorial election, said it remained important for Gwinnett and the Secretary of State’s office to work together to “avoid the mistakes” of 2018.

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“Already, by holding the vote in March instead of last November, voters will face an unnecessary burden to vote,” Groh-Wargo, who is now the CEO of Abrams’ voting rights group Fair Fight Georgia, said in an email. “Gwinnett voters deserve transparency when it comes to absentee ballots, provisional ballots, and election administration; they deserve a fair fight.”

IN-DEPTH: A comprehensive guide to Gwinnett’s MARTA referendum

IN-DEPTH: Gwinnett will have 3 solid weeks of early voting

Democrats and transit advocates were flabbergasted when Gwinnett’s referendum on joining MARTA was not added to ballot during November’s midterm election, when voters across Georgia were correctly forecast to turn out in numbers that matched presidential elections.

Early and absentee voting was encouraged by both parties in November’s mid-term — which played a part in the significant focus that eventually landed on Gwinnett’s disproportionately high rate of rejection for absentee and provisional ballots.

According to data reviewed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Gwinnett rejected 1,632 absentee ballots in the general election, more than twice as many as the second county on the list.

That was even after a series of lawsuits, court rulings and new guidance from the Georgia Secretary of State’s office forced the county to count hundreds of ballots it had previously rejected.

Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said that “continued vigilance remains necessary at the local level.”

“Gwinnett County is one name that comes up far too often in our work across the state to protect voting rights,” Clarke said.

Stephen Day, a Democratic appointee to Gwinnett’s elections board, served as the body’s chairman last year. He has said the county wasn’t aware it was rejecting more absentee ballots than other jurisdictions. He’s also asked the state to provide guidelines that leave less room for interpretation.

Gwinnett officials have said they treated issues like poor handwriting and missing birthdates on absentee ballots like they always have — and issued rejections. Other jurisdictions apparently have more generous interpretations of what they deemed trivial errors.

John Mangano, an independent appointee to Gwinnett’s elections board, took over as chairman during a Tuesday evening meeting.

“After the last election we have a lot that we can learn from moving forward,” he said, “and so I hope that in the spirit of democracy we can hopefully look at some things and acknowledge what we need to change and where we’re doing things well.”

In Gwinnett, voter turnout for November’s election eclipsed 60 percent. Though elections director Lynn Ledford said she’s bullish on turnout for the standalone MARTA vote, it’s likely to get significantly fewer voters to the polls than November.

A Dec. 4 runoff for two statewide races, for example, saw roughly 20 percent turnout in Gwinnett. An AJC analysis found that Gwinnett rejected about 430 absentee by mail ballots during that runoff.

Polls and surveys in Gwinnett have suggested that residents have an appetite for transit. But in a special election, a few hundred votes could be the difference between Georgia’s second most populous county embracing mass transit or rejecting it.

Bianca Keaton, the new chair of Gwinnett County’s Democratic Party, said she’ll be telling folks to vote in whichever way is most convenient to them — while also urging themto check the status of their vote to be sure it was counted.”

Paige Havens, the spokeswoman for pro-transit committee Go Gwinnett, said her group has “no reservations whatsoever about that being handled legitimately and legally.”

“I think if anything we should have the most confidence ever in early voting,” she said.

—Data specialist Jennifer Peebles contributed to this article.

VOTING SCHEDULE FOR GWINNETT MARTA REFERENDUM

Election Day for Gwinnett’s MARTA referendum is March 19. But voters will also have three weeks of advance voting to take advantage of.

Every day between Feb. 25 and March 15, including Saturdays and Sundays, early voting will be available at the county elections office at 455 Grayson Highway in Lawrenceville. Voting hours are 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. each day.

During the final two weeks (March 4-15), advance voting will also be available at seven satellite locations.

Those locations are as follows:

• Bogan Park Community Recreation Center, 2723 North Bogan Road, Buford, GA 30518

• Dacula Park Activity Building , 2735 Old Auburn Road, Dacula, GA 30019

• George Pierce Park Community Recreation Center, 55 Buford Highway, Suwanee, GA 30024

• Lenora Park Activity Room, 4515 Lenora Church Road, Snellville, GA 30078

• Lucky Shoals Park Community Recreation Center, 4651 Britt Road, Norcross, GA 30093

• Mountain Park Activity Building, 1063 Rockbridge Road, Stone Mountain, GA 30087

• Shorty Howell Park Community Recreation Center , 2750 Pleasant Hill Road, Duluth, GA 30096

The last day to register to vote in the referendum is Feb. 19.

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