As it currently stands, the vote on the regional transportation sales tax is scheduled for July 31, 2012.
But some people familiar with political timing and transportation referendums believe that holding the vote during the primary election will make it an uphill battle to pass.
That’s because most of the likely voters next July are expected to be Republican, conservative and suburban. And they tend to have more of an anti-tax attitude than liberal, Democratic and urban voters.
But several observers believe that the political dynamics would be totally different and much more favorable if the referendum were to be held during the general election on Nov. 6, 2012.
More voters turn out during general elections, especially during presidential races. Given that President Barack Obama will be seeking re-election, it is expected that the turnout among African-Americans, Democrats and liberals will be much higher in November than July.
At a half-day transit workshop of the Regional Atlanta Transportation Roundtable, national experts shared their insights about what makes referendums succeed or fail.
Jeff Boothe, a partner in the Washington, D.C. office of the Holland & Knight law firm, is considered to be a national expert in transportation policy and transit initiatives.
“Specifically transit referendums benefit in high turnout elections,” Boothe said. “If the goal is to be successful, then the goal should be to put it on the ballot when there’s the highest amount of turnout combined with the highest turnout of likely supporters of the referendum.”
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, who serves on the executive committee of the roundtable, agreed.
“The referendum would have the greatest chance for success during the general election,” Reed said. “The fact of the matter is that we have one opportunity to do this, and we ought to give ourselves the best chance of success.”
Still, key leaders in the effort to get the referendum passed are not so sure.
“I think there are pros and cons to both of those,” said Sam Williams, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, which has been working with other organizations to raise the money to launch a campaign to pass the referendum. “If you push it to November, it is a longer campaign, and it’s more expensive.”
Tad Leithead, chairman of the Atlanta Regional Commission, said he didn’t know the answer of whether the referendum should be on the July ballot or the November ballot.
“There are arguments on both sides,” Leithead said.
One person who is close to the campaign effort said much will depend on the outcome of redistricting. The state legislature will be convening this August to redraw congressional district lines, which could involve a new open Republican-leaning seat in the metro area.
A wide-open race in the Republican primary would certainly attract more voters to the poll who would tend to not be in favor of tax increases.
But if Congressmen John Lewis and Hank Johnson, both Democrats, were to have formidable opposition, then that could balance out the number of urban and liberal voters coming to the polls. Still, many observers said that it is not expected that either of them would face serious challengers.
If there were to be consensus to change the date of the referendum, then the legislation would need to be changed. Some state legislators have said that they would be willing to push a bill that would change the date of the referendum to November.
Meanwhile, the roundtable is busy trying to put together a list of projects that voters would be inclined to support.
One concern among transit advocates is that if the referendum were to be held in July, leaders would want to include projects that would appeal to Republican, conservative and suburban voters. In other words, the project list would be skewed towards roads over transit and alternative modes of transportation.
Reed, however, said he has seen no evidence that the roundtable was putting together a project list based on what would sell in a July primary.
“I think that folks are really working in an open and honest way on the project list,” Reed said. “It’s a good effort.”
Still, picking the date to hold the referendum could end up being the deciding factor on whether or not it passes.
As Reed said: “Any one who believes that we have a higher probability of succeeding in July rather than November is misinformed.”