County Clerk Henkels has her hands full

Rhiannon Henkels

Anita Savio
IVN contributing writer

In these times of political division, Josephine County Clerk Rhiannon Henkels still prides herself on good customer service. The Illinois Valley News took the time to find out what goes on at the clerk’s office.
For starters, the duties of the clerk’s office include: conducting elections, keeping public records, recording land records and liens, processing property tax appeals, accepting U.S. passport applications and even issuing marriage licenses.
The JoCo clerk is a nonpartisan elected official and one of Henkel’s important responsibilities is to verify ballot petition signatures. If you have ever signed a ballot proposal signature sheet you may wonder how Henkel’s office is able to verify each signatory from the scribbled entries on the sheet.
“We identify the voter anyway we can,” said Henkel. “If they printed their name I use that. If we can only identify part of the name – say there’s someone named James Thompson, where only the J and the Thom can be identified, I do a search for those letters with a wild card for the parts of the name that are not legible. I can also go by their address, if they listed their address. Once I find the voter, I compare the signature within their voter record with the signature on the petition sheet.”
Currently there is a petition to recall Grants Pass Mayor Sarah Bristol. The recall group submitted 4,301 signatures. Henkels and her staff were able to verify 4,289 signers that were proper; that is, the dates were good, they hadn’t been crossed out, they lived within the official city limits of Grants Pass, and so on. Out of those, 209 were unable to be identified as registered voters. So those were discarded. Also discarded were 28 entries that were illegible. In all, 5.8% of signatures were thrown out. That whole process of verification took about a week.
“We work diligently to make sure we can get every person that’s signed because they’ve taken the time to sign it. We do everything in our power to match them up properly,” said Henkels.
The number of verified signatures required is a percentage of the votes in the last governor race. For a referendum initiated by the county commissioners, that percentage is 4%. An initiative by a group of citizens requires 6%. Changes to the county charter require 8% and recall petitions require 15%.
In terms of what is hardest about her job, Henkels spoke of the political climate since the Biden-Trump election and citizen concerns over election integrity.
“There are the comments and the attacks upon you as a person and your integrity because of people’s belief in misinformation and disinformation that’s out there. There are a lot of small groups that are just trying to provoke chaos statewide. There are people from other counties that want to see our ballot images and get angry when we tell them they have to pay for that.
“I have everything available online. You can watch the ballot counting process in real time. But that’s not good enough. They want to be sitting there and touching the ballots. But that’s not okay.
“Often ime people just don’t understand the process and so they attack it. For instance there was one man who wanted to see the signatures on the ballots and didn’t understand that those are not public record. How would he like it if his signature was blasted over the internet?”
For those who wish to observe the ballot counting online they can go to https://www.josephinecounty.gov/government/county_clerk___recorder/election_voter_registration/observation.
People are also welcome to physically sit in on the process for an hour at a time. However, there are regulations – there can be no touching of the ballots or the machines and personal goods must be placed in lockers.
For the part of her work that Henkels enjoys the most she mentioned working with her great staff – consisting of four people in all. “We pride ourselves that we have good customer service and you leave here satisfied with what you came here for.”
And for the affordable fee of $117, that can include a simple but respectful civil marriage ceremony, provided by Henkels herself.