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Gwinnett SPLOST vote turnout 'hard to diagnose'

Taxes didn’t hold the attention of voters this election, with leaders still reeling Wednesday from one of the lowest voter turnouts in a November contest in years.

Less than 10 percent of Gwinnett’s 380,000 registered voters filled out ballots in the county special election, where 58 percent gave the go-ahead for the county’s one-percent sales tax program to continue three years.

Precincts varied from 634 votes in a Rocky Creek precinct — where the electorate also had a state House race to consider — to just 54 tallied in a Duluth polling location.

“I really don’t know,” Elections Superintendent Lynn Ledford said of the light crowd at local polling places, which was about half of what she had originally expected to see. “It’s not something that’s easy to diagnose.”

Paige Havens, a community activist who co-chaired the campaign in favor of the SPLOST extension, said the low turnout wasn’t surprising, since the matter was the only one on the ballot for much of the county.

“If anything, we were encouraged because the turnout was actually higher than we expected,” Havens said. “We worked very hard to stress to people in our grassroots efforts not only the importance of supporting SPLOST but the importance of simply casting their vote. Those who felt strongly about this issue, no matter their stance, made a point to go vote and that’s what’s important.”

“While the numbers were low, we do feel we got a solid sampling of our voting population and feel confident the outcome reflects the desire of our community overall to continue using SPLOST as a vital funding source to make our community the best it can be,” Havens added.

Commission Chairwoman Charlotte Nash said that officials in the past planned for sales tax votes on the presidential election calendar, but the current program was set for five years, which made this year’s vote necessary. The timing, she said, “is not our preferred approach,” but added that the low turnout didn’t seem to be a factor in the decision.

“I don’t see that low turnout helped or hurt the chances of passing the referendum,” she said. “In fact, the one time that a SPLOST referendum failed was a special election in 1995.”

Sandra Strickland, a Lawrenceville woman who cast her ballot Tuesday, said she took no satisfaction in stepping up to the polls without a wait in line.

“I think everyone needs to come out,” she said. “Everything has to start locally. I think a lot of people sit home and don’t take part in it, but everyone has different ideas and we need all of them. … I just wish more people would come out and vote.”

With city council matters on the ballot at polls across the county, the night ended with runoffs in the House District 104 race, and for council posts in Lawrenceville, Duluth and Winder.

The Dec. 3 runoff, though, could bring even more dismal results, as runoffs often only bring out about half of the turnout of the general eleciton.