A Milwaukee election official could face criminal charges accusing her of fraudulently requesting absentee ballots reserved for military members and sending them to a Republican lawmaker known for embracing unfounded conspiracy theories about the 2020 election.
Milwaukee Election Commission deputy director Kimberly Zapata, 44, of South Milwaukee, was fired by Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson this week after Johnson discovered she had requested the ballots. Johnson said Zapata’s actions may have been to show voter fraud was possible.
“This has every appearance of being an egregious and blatant violation of trust,” Johnson said. “Election integrity is absolutely integral. It’s absolutely essential.”
Milwaukee County prosecutors are considering charging Zapata with malfeasance in office, a felony, and illegally requesting a ballot, a misdemeanor, a source told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
District Attorney John Chisholm said that his office is reviewing the election fraud allegations and that prosecutors “expect charges to be filed in the coming days.”
Michael Maistelman, who is representing Zapata, declined to answer questions.
“We will litigate this in the courtroom, not the media,” Maistelman said.
Johnson held a news conference Thursday but left before reporters were finished asking questions about the matter.
The revelation five days before the Nov. 8 midterm election is potentially explosive at a time when Republicans have cast doubt on the security of absentee voting, and in Milwaukee in particular, ever since former President Donald Trump began falsely accusing Milwaukee election officials of rigging the 2020 election.
At Thursday’s press conference, Johnson said he learned Wednesday that Zapata “apparently sought fictitious military ballots” from a state elections website and directed them to Brandtjen.
He said Zapata’s actions may have been an effort to expose a vulnerability in the state election system.
“It does not matter to me that the alleged crime did not take place at work,” he said. “It does not matter to me that the city of Milwaukee ballots were not a part of this, nor does it matter that there was no attempt to vote illegally or tamper with any election results.”
City officials revoked Zapata’s access to city offices and computer systems when they learned of her actions, and she was fired, Johnson said.
He said while there is no other indication of violations by Zapata, city officials are “looking into the possibility of other misdeeds.”
Zapata had been with the Election Commission for about seven years and the city about 10, Woodall-Vogg said.
“Up until this point, we have never had any indication of any type of violation of work policies or procedures,” Woodall-Vogg said. “We, of course, will be taking an extra look at that, but up until this point, she has been forthcoming, and we don’t have any indication of any concerns at this point. That’s not to say that we won’t be looking at every aspect of elections she’s been involved in.”
Asked how they learned of Zapata’s actions, Woodall-Vogg said, “the employee was forthcoming.”
Under state law, military voters are not required to register to vote and do not have to provide a photo ID or any other identification.
“It’s my belief that she was pointing out that you can go onto the public system, make up a person, and request a ballot,” Woodall-Vogg said, adding that city officials’ understanding is that she sent it to Brandtjen to alert her to the system’s vulnerability.
Johnson said faith in Milwaukee’s elections should not be shaken because city officials were forthcoming about what had happened, and Zapata was immediately fired.
At that point, he and Woodall-Vogg left as reporters shouted questions.
On Monday, the Waukesha County Sheriff’s Department announced it was investigating who requested absentee ballots on behalf of military members and had them sent to the home of state Rep. Janel Brandtjen of Menomonee Falls (R).
Brandtjen said she believed the episode involved someone copying the actions of a Racine County man who believes voter fraud robbed Donald Trump of a victory in 2020 and wanted to prove election fraud is possible.
Brandtjen, who leads the Assembly’s elections committee, said Monday she contacted law enforcement and former Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman. They oversaw a partisan review of the 2020 election after she received three ballots from clerks in Menomonee Falls, where Brandtjen lives, South Milwaukee, and Shorewood, to three women with the first name Holly.
“None of these individuals reside, or have resided at her address, and the Representative did not request the ballots. After Rep. Brandtjen made inquiries, she realized these three ‘Hollys’ probably don’t exist. If they did, why would they send ballots to her house?” aides to Brandtjen wrote in a news release on the matter.
The Sheriff’s Department is working with the Waukesha County district attorney to investigate, the department said Monday.
“We are still gathering the WEC data regarding Rep. Brandtjen’s concerns that she outlined in her recent press release. We plan to work with our law enforcement partners as appropriate to address the allegations,” Wisconsin Elections Commission spokesman Riley Vetterkind said in a statement.
Before knowing who was at fault, Brandtjen characterized the episode as an effort to expose loopholes in election law, comparing it to crimes alleged against Harry Wait, a leader of a Racine County-based group known as H.O.T. Government that promotes false claims of voter fraud in the 2020 election.
Wait was charged earlier this year with two counts of election fraud and two counts of unauthorized use of an individual’s personal identifying information for posing as Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Racine Mayor Cory Mason to request their ballots in order to show violations of the law are possible.
Before his first court appearance in the matter in September, Wait compared himself to founding fathers such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
“My actions are in the spirit of organic law of this nation, upon which was founded taking action in civil disobedience,” he told reporters in a news conference. “I have acted in a similar manner as the founder of this nation acted. For that reason, I am certain my actions are indeed both lawful and under organic law of the nation.”
On Monday, a post in Wait’s group’s social media channel called Brandtjen a “patriot” for highlighting what the group calls problems with the state’s system to request absentee ballots. To change the process for military members would require lawmakers to take action. Under state law, military members are exempt from registering to vote or providing photo identification.
As chairwoman of the elections committee, Brandtjen has repeatedly held hearings promoting false claims of voter fraud and 2020 election conspiracy theories.
“If another Republican has committed election fraud, they should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. I hope whoever did this is caught so we can send a clear message that this will not be tolerated,” Democratic state Rep. Mark Spreitzer of Beloit, a member of the Assembly elections committee, said in a statement. “For obvious reasons, military voters need to be able to vote absentee, and we should not tolerate anyone who wants to make our service members pawns for their political agenda.”