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He spread conspiracies about elections. Now he oversees them

David Whipple in his office in Indianola
David Whipple in his office in Indianola. He faces a special election to keep his job as auditor of Warren County

A controversy over conspiracy theories that has engulfed a small Iowa county shows the continuing power of Donald Trump's false claims about election fraud.

Like millions of other Americans, David Whipple was enraged by the 2020 election.

"The left has tried real hard to steal our nation, but no thanks. We will remain Patriots and free Americans," he wrote on Facebook, days after it became clear that Joe Biden would be the next president of the United States.

It was just one of a string of messages that Mr Whipple shared around that time with conspiratorial themes. Others included links to QAnon and 9/11 conspiracy theory videos, and cast further doubt on the 2020 election.

Those posts went almost entirely unnoticed at the time, and for more than two years afterwards - until, in June of this year, Mr Whipple was appointed as the auditor of Warren County, Iowa.

Among his duties, he will now oversee elections.

That has baffled and outraged many in this rural county of about 50,000 people just south of Des Moines. On Tuesday, Mr Whipple faces a special election that could remove him from office.

This very local dispute raises a particularly potent political question that resonates across the United States today: does spreading conspiracy theories and election fraud allegations make someone unfit for public office?

Unfortunate misinformation

Immediately after Mr Whipple's posts came to light, local Democrats sprung into action.

By law, they had two weeks from his appointment to gather enough signatures on a petition to force a special election.

Democrats knocked on doors along the highways linking the county's farms, small towns and Des Moines suburbs, and fanned out around the gleaming new courthouse in Indianola, the county seat, approaching voters outside the town square's cafes and local shops.

A pedestrian walks near the town square in Indianola, a city of about 16,000 in the middle of Warren County
A pedestrian walks near the town square in Indianola, a city of about 16,000 in the middle of Warren County

Jim Culbert, chair of the Warren County Democrats, says the petition was so popular that some eager residents didn't have to wait to be asked, instead rushing up to clipboard-toting volunteers to sign it.

Mr Whipple's social media activity was the main point of contention.

"It obviously makes you question their judgment," Mr Culbert says of the Facebook posts. "And if their judgment was that bad on this stuff in the past, why are we trusting them to run things in the future?"

At a restless hearing on the petition, held on a Friday afternoon just before the 4 July holiday weekend, up to 100 local residents crowded into a committee room.

The fractious crowd was prepared for the petition to be denied, and the meeting's chair, county attorney Douglas Eichholz, repeatedly admonished people to remain civil.

The head of the local Republican party, Steve Kirby, accused Democrats of "passive deception" and argued that some of the signatures on the petition should be thrown out for being illegible.

But despite the opposition, the petition was accepted by a three-member panel which included Mr Whipple himself.

Although he was originally appointed to serve out the rest of the auditor's term - through to the end of 2024, including next November's looming elections - he could now be out of office just months after taking up the post.

Speaking to the BBC on a hot, sunny day, surrounded by stacks of paperwork in his office two blocks from the town square, Mr Whipple defended his use of Facebook.

"They weren't things that I was authoring personally," he says. "I'd say, 'Hey, check this one out', and send it on to my friends and family."

He got carried away, he says, and now thinks some of the things he posted were "ridiculous". He says he has no doubt that Joe Biden is the legitimate president of the United States.

"It was a very emotional time for a lot of people in the world," he says. "It's unfortunate that a lot of these things ended up being so much misinformation."

He deleted the posts shortly after they became news. But Democrats say he continues to traffic in unsubstantiated theories - and that makes him unsuitable for public office, particularly one that oversees elections.

Mural showing Indianola and a map of Iowa
Indianola is the largest city in Warren County, in the middle of Iowa

Mainstream ideas

Warren County, like Iowa itself, was in recent memory fairly split politically - having gone narrowly for Democrat Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election, then narrowly against him in 2012.

But the mix of people here - who tend to corn and soy fields or live in the new developments on Des Moines' outskirts - have been increasingly drawn to the Republican camp ever since Mr Trump arrived on the scene.

The former president won Warren County by about 17 percentage points in 2020.

Democrats have also gradually lost the sway they once had locally.

"Politics here used to be much more evenly matched," says Amy Duncan, publisher of the local newspaper, the Indianola Independent Advocate. "There's some Democrats around, there's even some fairly liberal Democrats around, but none of them are holding political office in the way that they did 10 years ago."

Until Mr Whipple's appointment, the auditor's position was the last county-wide post held by a Democrat.

Popular fraud theories

The controversial social media posts were brought to light by Kedron Bardwell, a political science professor at Simpson College.

Among other things, Mr Bardwell teaches a course on misinformation and conspiracy theories on the brick-lined campus just north of Indianola's town square.

His office is filled with political memorabilia from past presidential campaigns which, as per American tradition, begin in Iowa. But his students now have a local example to study.

Kedron Bardwell in his office
Kedron Bardwell was the first to raise the alarm about Mr Whipple's social media posts

Mr Bardwell says the county's Republican leadership looked past Mr Whipple's posts because they too buy into Mr Trump's election theories.

"I think it's highly likely that [the county supervisors] didn't see them as problematic because in large part they agree," Mr Bardwell says.

And election fraud, he noted, "is a mainstream idea to about two-thirds of Republicans" - a figure borne out by polls. A recent CNN survey, for example, found that 69% of Republicans believe Joe Biden's victory was illegitimate.

Mr Trump himself continues to repeatedly make the same baseless allegations - that the 2020 election was stolen, and he was the rightful winner - despite facing multiple criminal charges related to those conspiracy theories.

But Trump's obsession also presents a fundamental problem for Republicans nationwide. While it might enthuse the party's base, it's less popular among the general public.

According to research by nonpartisan group States United, candidates who repeated election fraud themes underperformed by somewhere between 2.3 to 3.7 percentage points during last year's midterm elections - a small but potentially crucial margin.

Democrats are banking that dynamic will prevail in August's special election. They are confident that they can win over independent voters and even get some Republicans to back Democrat Kim Sheets, who currently holds the position of deputy auditor.

Democrat Kim Sheets hopes to unseat David Whipple in the special election
Democrat Kim Sheets hopes to unseat David Whipple in the special election

Mr Whipple retains the backing of local Republicans, who say his decades in business and his management skills make him the most qualified candidate.

And far from being a demerit, argues Mr Kirby, the county Republican chairman, the controversial posts should actually count in Mr Whipple's favour.

"He's got questions about the 2020 election," Mr Kirby said. "Well, a lot of people have. It also shows that he is very interested in election integrity."

Although he's thought twice about his past posts, Mr Whipple has not entirely jettisoned fraud theories.

While he says he isn't aware of any large-scale voter fraud in Warren County, Mr Whipple did hint about rumours of mismanagement in the auditor's office and noted that some poll workers - many of whom are local retired volunteers - had switched their party affiliation just before previous elections.

That, he suggested, might indicate there's suspicious activity going on.

"I didn't witness [this] myself," he says. "But it makes me think there's smoke here. So let me go investigate the fire."

But Democrats, and election-watchers like Mr Bardwell, dismiss any suggestion of widespread voting irregularities in Warren County.

"That's crazy. I don't even know what to say about poll workers switching allegiances," Mr Culbert, the chair of County Democrats, says. "I don't know how that would affect anything, even if it was true."

A bridge too far?

In the 29 August special election Mr Whipple will face voters for the first time. And, as he remains in the county auditor's post for now, he'll also oversee the election.

Mr Bardwell, the political science professor, predicts that Mr Whipple will struggle to hold on to his new job.

"I've talked to several people I know around town who are not partisans," he says. "They were shocked to see those posts."

He says that despite the solid Republican bloc of support, Democrats should be able to capitalise on the controversy.

"What you'll see is people in the middle rising up and saying this is a bridge too far," he says. "And I think you'll see a defeat of Mr Whipple in the special election."