INDIANOLA, Iowa (AP) — Earlier this summer, a GOP-controlled board in an Iowa county decided that the person who would oversee their local elections would be a fellow Republican who had no specific experience running elections and who made prior social media posts questioning the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential contest. Local Democrats were outraged — and David Whipple's stint as county auditor didn’t last long.
On Tuesday, voters in Warren County overwhelmingly decided to replace Whipple with Kimberly Sheets, a Democrat who had served in the auditor's office. She earned about 67% of the vote over Whipple in the special election, which highlighted the desire for voters to choose their own candidate for the important office and take a stand against what some saw as an overreach by local government.
“There was a power grab,” Steven Rose, 71, of Indianola, said of Whipple's appointment to the post after the former auditor retired in June. Rose, who voted for Sheets, said: “I’m voting against what the Board of Supervisors did as much as I’m voting for the candidate.”
The dustup in the increasingly red suburban and rural county south of Des Moines is the latest example of local election offices across the U.S. being run by people who have denied the results of the 2020 presidential election or have promoted baseless conspiracy theories about how elections are run. But in Warren County, the way Whipple was appointed drew just as much — if not more — ire from voters as some of his online posts.
The auditor's position in Warren County opened up in May, when Democrat Traci VanderLinden retired after 25 years in the post. VanderLinden was the only Democrat to hold office in the county's government, having been most recently reelected in 2020. Sheets, her deputy since 2019, was recommended to take her place.
But in a June 6 public meeting, the three-member, all Republican, Board of Supervisors voted to appoint Whipple to the post — despite his lack of experience in government and his prior posts that seemed to support former President Donald Trump's unfounded claims of election fraud in 2020.
In his support for Whipple, County Supervisor Darren Heater said during the June meeting that the board isn't afraid to drive change, even if it is hard.
“We all love Kim Sheets. I mean, anybody that’s worked with her for more than 10 minutes will love her,” Heater said. “But this is kind of a defining moment for Warren County,” he went on. “Are we going to continue on the path that’s got us where we’re at or are we gonna do something big and change?”
At least one member of the board suggested he was aware of Whipple's social media posts at the time of his appointment, according to the Des Moines Register, including posts made after the 2020 election in which Whipple included the hashtag #StopTheSteal. In another, he commented: “Trump has got this... The left has tried real hard to steal our nation, but no thanks we will remain Patriots and free Americans,” according to screenshots taken by the Des Moines Register. Whipple also shared a statement from Trump on Dec. 22, 2020, saying “He’s not leaving despite media reporting. I’m loving this!”
“When you have the sitting president of the United States saying that, wouldn’t it create some emotion for everybody to sit back and say, hey, if there’s smoke, let’s see if there’s fire?” Whipple told The Associated Press on Monday, as he explained why he made the online comments.
Whipple, who said he has since deleted the posts to protect his friends and family, said that he didn’t closely follow the investigations that unsubstantiated Trump’s claims but that he accepts Joe Biden as the legitimate president.
Whipple’s campaign to be elected to the office focused on issues he said he's found and worked to resolve in office operations since becoming interim auditor, including voting equipment that was unaccounted for, accrued late fees and poorly maintained county buildings.
But from the jump, Whipple also was forced on the defensive for his social media posts.
Alison Hoeman, 47, of Norwalk said she was shocked by Whipple’s posts and couldn’t trust him as a result, even if he’s since said the election was legitimate.
“Whether he’s doing it on purpose or whether he didn’t read it or whether he believes it or whatever, that person can’t be in charge of our elections,” Hoeman said. “Under pressure, people say a lot of things, right? But it’s what you did at the time.”
Since the 2020 election and Trump's lies that it was stolen, there has been heightened concern surrounding those who oversee elections, from the state to local level. In the 2022 midterms, several candidates who denied or questioned the legitimacy of the 2020 election ran for statewide office -- winning their primaries in states such as Michigan, Nevada and Pennsylvania but ultimately losing in the general election. A few were elected.
At the local level, some have also gained control – raising alarms about how they will administer elections if they don’t believe elections are fair. Former Mesa County, Colorado, clerk Tina Peters has been charged in connection with a security breach inside her election office that resulted in a copy of her county’s voting system hard drive being posted online. Yet she has emerged as a prominent figure among those who promote conspiracy theories about rigged voting machines.
Peters has denied wrongdoing and faces trial later this year.
Earlier this month, the former election official in Coffee County, Georgia, was among 19 people, including the former president, charged with multiple counts in what prosecutors describe as a “conspiracy to unlawfully change the outcome of the election in favor of Trump.” Prosecutors allege this included a security breach of election equipment in the south Georgia community.
In Warren County, Amy and Jim Wooley hadn’t seen or heard about Whipple’s past comments. The retirees of Otter Creek, an unincorporated community in rural Indianola, said they voted for Sheets because she has the experience. Jim Wooley, 72, said: “This to me is much more about experience than it is about R or D.”
Frances Kuncel, 72, of Ackworth, said it was the county officials’ right to choose a Republican as interim auditor and there was no need for a “magnanimous” decision that she said would “never” come from the other side.
“You don’t see that in a Democrat-controlled state,” she said, having recently moved to Iowa from Illinois.
Whipple's concern about election integrity and the work he has said he's done to secure the process since taking office convinced Dan Robinson, 46, of Norwalk.
“That’s huge,” he said. “Anybody that’s going to stand up and help fix that, take care of that, that’s where I’m going to vote.”
For Chris Shipley, though, those posts were disqualifying. He said he didn’t want somebody who denies an election or relays conspiracy theories “anywhere near my government.”
He also didn't like that Whipple was “handed” the job.
“If the people come out and vote and he gets the job, then fine, then he’s earned it,” said Shipley, 52, who lives in Norwalk. “But just handed him the way that they did? I just don’t think that’s right.”
“Local elections are just as important as national elections,” he said. “Especially ones like this.”
Hannah Fingerhut, The Associated Press