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Head of Milwaukee's Election Commission testifies in ballot fraud case against former coworker

Posted at 10:12 AM, Mar 20, 2024

MILWAUKEE — Milwaukee's top election official took the witness stand against her former deputy director who is accused of ballot fraud.

Kimberly Zapata is on trial and accused of sending fake military absentee ballots to a republican lawmaker in 2022. Zapata waived her right to testify in the case on Tuesday, March 19.

The state called four witnesses on Tuesday including Claire Woodall, executive director of Milwaukee's Election Commission. Woodall testified about those early moments as news of the fraudulent ballots came to light.

Woodall told the court that she learned about the fake ballots through a newspaper article and sent Zapata a text about it.

"I believe she responded that she had not seen the news article, but that the recipient of those ballots had a point," Woodall recalled.

The next day, Zapata approached Woodall and admitted to requesting the fake ballots.

"My response was don't you know that this is a crime? That this is horrible," Woodall explained.

Woodall says she pointed out Harry Wait to Zapata as an example of someone accused of election fraud.

Defense attorney Dan Adams pointed out that Zapata was under pressure from security concerns and managing election logistics soon after her brother's sudden death.

Prosecutor Matthew Westphal played an audio recording in which Zapata told investigators said wanted the truth to come out. She was fed up as as her office dealt with threats, conspiracy theories, and harassment which prompted increased security changes.

"It's just a constant daily harassment from both political parties," Zapata is heard stating on the recording.

Zapata said she picked Representative Janel Brandtjen because she was vocal about elections. Zapata thought it would redirect messaging rooted in conspiracy theories toward a real vulnerability, in this case, restrictions to request military absentee ballots.

In 2022, Brandjten was kicked out of the Assembly GOP caucus for pushing election conspiracy theories.

"So Kimberly was doing more than most municipal clerks, right," Adams asked Woodall.

"Yes," Woodall responded.

"She was actually scrutinizing these requests in a diligent manner," Adams inquired.

"Correct," Woodall answered.

"She was going above and beyond to make sure the democracy was being upheld out of your office, right," Adam pressed.

"In her viewpoint yes," Woodall stated.

Prosecutors argued that Zapata's actions using work resources conflicted with her duty as an election official.

"Is introducing false information making the election secure," Attorney Matthew Westphal asked.

"No," Woodall said.

Zapata says she used a state database only accessible by election workers to find Brandtjen's address. She told investigators she used the public MyVote website to request ballots through three communities Shorewood, South Milwaukee and Menomonee Falls.

However, Zapata did not want the ballots to be used.

The state rested its case Tuesday afternoon.

Court resumed Wednesday morning.