The Heavy Lifting for the Gwinnett Transit Vote

The matter before the voters in Gwinnett County come March 19 is a simple “yes” or “no” on a contract to approve transit services provided by MARTA (and soon to be under the auspices of the Atlanta Region Transit Link Authority, or ATL). Early voting has begun, and the contract approval is the only County-wide question on the ballot -which is resulting in a lot of attention for the measure.

County Commission Chair Charlotte Nash has been touring Gwinnett touting the features of the contract, which are substantial: three seats on the MARTA Board for Gwinnett, the miles and miles of bus rapid transit (known as “light rail on rubber tires”), the fact that all sales tax revenue raised in Gwinnett will be spent in Gwinnett, and the ability of Gwinnett County to approve or disapprove debt financing by MARTA -it’s an unprecedented amount of control for Gwinnett County -more than Clayton, DeKalb, Fulton or the City of Atlanta. Chairwoman Nash (who, full disclosure here, was my client in her election and re-election campaigns) deserves a lot of credit for her negotiating skills.

MARTA, as an issue, has usually enjoyed extensive and unwavering support from Democrats, while Republicans have embraced it far more reluctantly. But in spite of the two most recent elections favoring Democrats -Hillary Clinton took 51% of Gwinnett’s vote in 2016, Stacey Abrams garnered 56% in 2018- current polls show the transit contract opposed by 51%, supported by 39% with 10% undecided.  The early vote numbers reported so far skew to the older, whiter demographic who typically oppose transit, and taxes.
There has been a series of endorsements of the measure from prominent Republicans -former Governor Nathan Deal said Gwinnett needs transit to even get to be considered for corporate relocations, Gwinnett Sheriff Butch Conway, and Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter have touted transit as a boon to public safety. But squint at the demographics of the early vote -older, whiter, likely Republican, likely opposed- and it would appear that the endorsements from party leaders aren’t changing many minds.

It’s only fair to note that support for approving the contract has been touted by prominent Democrats as well, including rising star Stacey Abrams herself. A group she founded, The New Georgia Project Action Fund, has been doing the crucial work of canvassing, knocking on doors, and tracking down those new and infrequent voters who gave Abrams 56% of the vote in Gwinnett last fall.

Veteran political consultant Fred Hicks (another full disclosure here: Fred and I were part of the team that developed the “MoreMARTA” branding campaign for the educational effort of the most recent MARTA expansion in the City of Atlanta) is leading the foot-soldiers of the NGPAF to contact, urge, persuade and ultimately turn out “yes” votes. This is the heaviest lift of this campaign. Direct voter contact, face to face, at the voters’ front door, is the best way to ensure that your most likely “yes” votes are going to show up. It takes a lot of man and woman-power to pull off, but it’s far more precise than a television ad that might get more impressions and inadvertently rouse the  opposition.

Since January 21, the NGPAF has knocked on over 60,000 doors representing 75,000 Gwinnett voters. They have contacted 100,000 through targeted text messaging. They’re able to guage support or opposition on the spot, by talking to voters, and any opposing the measure are not re-contacted.

In an election where the entire effort comes down to which side turns out more of their voters, NGPAF is the one getting to those voters in the most direct, efficient way, and in the only way that doesn’t run the risk of antagonizing the opposition. Should the measure fail, it won’t be because NGPAF didn’t put the effort into direct voter outreach.

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