Sporting one of his six or so fedoras -- he wears them because they make him happy -- Kirk hands over graphs of elections breakdowns for the Nov. 8 vote. More than once, he stresses the importance of informing the public of the complexities of this year's election.
So, how did this computer science major from Rome end up the Bartow County elections supervisor? That's a "convoluted story."
Name: Joseph Kirk
Age: I just had a birthday. Am I 28 or 29? I was born Oct. 2, 1982; that makes me ... 29. Wow! I'm 29.
Occupation: I am the elections supervisor for Bartow County.
Family: Yes. I have a wife, Tiffany.
City of residence: Cartersville.
Education: I have my bachelors in computer science from the University of Georgia.
How did you become the elections supervisor in Bartow County?
A: That's a convoluted story. Back when I was at UGA, the summer of my freshman year, I needed a job, and I started out working as a handyman for a guy in Rome and he didn't have a whole lot of work for me. But, this is 2002, right when Kennesaw State University got the contract to implement the touch-screens statewide and I happened to have a family friend who was in charge of the project. The original plan was to send out teams of two testers -- because, see, we had to test every single machine -- one old ... gentleman to, you know, test the machines and a strapping, young gentleman to carry the stupid things around because they weigh 45 pounds apiece. I'll let you guess which one I was hired to be.
He brought me on a little early to stuff envelopes, and in the process, I ended up in the original training class for the state with the Secretary of State's Office and people way outside my pay grade. And I was lost. The technology I understood 'cause the original plan was for counties to build their own databases and really get in there and get their hands dirty and take care of themselves. I understood what the buttons did but I didn't understand why.
You know, never having been around elections before that I didn't understand about districts, the difference between a polling place and a precinct, voter registration requirements and how everything links together. It was just something else, but since I went to that training class, I ended up writing the original acceptance test for the state -- or one of the three authors for that, training all their employees. Turns out I was good at it.
When I went back to college ... I couldn't keep working for KSU. When I got to college, I had this bright idea of, "I've got all this training and these counties don't know what they're doing; I should work under contract." And I hired myself out to various counties while I was in school ... and I would drive around doing their testing for them and little bits of training. The deal is, they can't hire the center to come to the testing form, but if there was someone in bad shape around the Athens area, you know, someone who just got hired and didn't know there is an election around the corner and you've never seen a voting machine before, how do we get them ready, call Joseph. I set my own rate, I set my own hours. Man, it was great.
Then, through KSU, I've actually been, I think, to every single county in the state of Georgia at one point or another testing voting machines. I was in a different county almost every day during the summers and went through college that way.
When I graduated I sent out 50 resumes, 49 resumes -- I did not send one to Louisiana because they had just had Katrina hit and I figured they didn't want to hire anybody -- and figured someone was going to bite. [I] ended up going to Mississippi for two years and working for the Secretary of State's Office there, and I implemented their touch-screen voting system for them in 77 counties out there.
One of the unfortunate things working for state government, or one of the unfortunate things, is, especially for contract workers, when your elected official goes away there is no guarantee of employment. So when Eric Clark, the Secretary of State, decided not to run for re-election, I was already homesick, I already wanted to be closer to my family -- I grew up in Rome -- and said, "Well, I'll check into what's going on in Georgia." I had kept contacts out here, and right about that time, the job here became available. Never thought I would get it, no management experience, my degree is in computer science. I had learned the legal side of it from my job in Mississippi, so I knew how to read the laws but wasn't so familiar with the Georgia laws anymore. But, lo and behold, interviewed, got the job, moved back here and I just love it here. This is a great little gig.
How important do you feel voting is, not just to Bartow County but to America?
A: ... What is the word I'm looking for? To sound as cheesy as possible, it's the backbone of our nation. It is people's voice in our government. Everyone has a chance to be heard, even if it is in a very small way. The percentage for a presidential election, you are one out of millions, but that is still your choice and your vote. I mean nothing makes me more disappointed than the turnouts for elections. The fact that, when I go do a presentation for a group and I'm showing historical voter turnouts, I've got to cap the graph at 30 percent so you can see the graph is a problem. And for runoffs I think it caps at like 8 percent or 10 percent or something. I mean it's horrible.
When you look at other countries internationally, there are countries where voting is mandatory; it is against the law, federal law, not to vote. They have better turnouts; it is more representative. It is actually, people's voices get heard more there than here where there is more freedom. I don't know. It's just a problem.
One thing, just to get on my soap box, that people don't think about is, just because you're exercising your right to vote doesn't mean you have to choose someone. There have been many times I have chosen not to vote in a race. I have chosen not to vote the entire, stupid ballot, but I still exercised my right to vote. It doesn't take that long anymore. It's an hour out of your day, at the most, in Bartow County. People really need to -- how do I put this politely? I can't figure out how to put it politely, so I'm just not going to say it.
What is the hardest part of your job? The best?
A: That's a difficult question. There are a few aspects of my job that are fairly difficult. How to choose one?The best part of my job is I get to do something different every day. No two days are the same really. Even though the work we do is repetitive, there's always something new coming down the pipe from the state; there's always a special case that came in the mail that, "Well, they did this, and we don't know how to handle it;" always research going on. It is a continual learning process more than any other career path I've ever seen. I mean, that big ole book right there is our code. [Holds a portion of the book roughly three-fourths of an inch thick] This is what changed in the past year. So, from the last election cycle, I've got to know all this stuff for the new one.
The hardest part, really to me, is the people part of the job. Before I started in elections, I wasn't a people person. I had ambitions to be one of those back-room computer guys who see the light of day twice in a week, and I'm there with all my ... computers and I'm perfectly happy.
That was a challenge for me, not only taking this job but when I was in Mississippi and Georgia. It was really the training part of it that got me going on that, the fact that you ... kind of have to swallow your pride, get over yourself, stand up in front of people, and well, if you mess up, you did it again and you keep on going.
This question, you've already answered, but do you vote?
A: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. Do you?
What would people be surprised to learn about you?
A: About me? Oh, people who know me, probably nothing. They've been surprised so often they are used to it.
I minored in music. I was, used to be one heck of a trumpet player. I carve. I'm a fairly competent mechanic. I'm a computer expert. I have very, very random interests, and once I get interested in something, I fixate on it almost. I'm always learning something new.
What makes Bartow County special?
A: Now, when we say special, are we talking good special or bad special? [laughs] You know, it's one of those things that's hard to put your finger on, but I really think it's the people. There is something about being part of the Bartow County community that once you are here you are welcomed, and it just stays that way.
What is the best advice you have ever received?
A: Keep your mouth shut.
If you weren't doing this, what would you be doing? A dream job?
A: I'd love to work for Google.
What is your favorite meal?
A: Favorite meal? A nicely seared steak, twice-baked potato, asparagus ... roasted asparagus -- I'm an excellent chef by the way -- and cheesecake. And I'd have to make it.
What do you do in your free time?
A: It's hard to keep track. It really is. Whatever catches my interest that day.