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Stress over threats drove former Milwaukee elections official to request fake ballots, attorney says

MJS-Kimberly Zapata
Posted at 12:10 PM, Mar 19, 2024

MILWAUKEE (AP) — The attorney for a former Milwaukee elections official charged with fraudulently requesting three military absentee ballots under fake names and sending them to a Republican lawmaker who embraced election conspiracy theories argued Tuesday that she was distraught over threats and her brother's death.

Kimberly Zapata, the former deputy director of the Milwaukee Election Commission, is on trial on multiple charges, including felony misconduct in office and three misdemeanor counts of making a false statement to obtain an absentee ballot. She faces up to five years behind bars if convicted of all four counts.

According to the criminal complaint, a week before the November 2022 election Zapata fabricated three names with fake Social Security numbers and requested military absentee ballots in those names through MyVote Wisconsin, the state’s voter database. Zapata told investigators she used her government access to MyVote Wisconsin’s voter registration records to find state Republican Rep. Janel Brandtjen’s address and had the ballots sent to her Menomonee Falls home, the complaint said.

Brandtjen has advocated for decertifying Biden’s 2020 win in Wisconsin for the past two years and has espoused conspiracy theories supporting her position.

Zapata's attorney, Daniel Adams, contends Zapata saw herself as a whistleblower. He tried to use testimony Tuesday from the election commission's executive director, Claire Woodall Vogg, to paint Zapata as a political neophyte who fixated on gaps in the election system.

Woodall Vogg told Adams that Zapata doesn't follow politics or current events. She said Zapata sees the world in black-and-white terms and if something doesn't make sense “she will hound you until it does.”

Woodall Vogg also testified that the commission received constant threats over a two-week period in August 2022, including a message saying the entire staff should go before a firing squad. Zapata saw almost all of the threats because she was responsible for viewing the commission's email inbox.

Woodall Vogg said she believed that Zapata requested the fake ballots to try to redirect election conspiracy theorists toward actual problems, in keeping with her personality.

Still, she said she was stunned to learn that Zapata had requested the ballots. She said she asked Zapata asked if she had ever heard of Harry Wait.

Wait similarly obtained absentee ballots in the summer of 2022 by posing as Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Racine Mayor Cory Mason on online applications and mailed the ballots to Brandtjen. Wait said he did it to expose vulnerabilities in the system. Criminal charges are still pending against him.

Wait made headlines across the state, but Woodall Vogg testified that Zapata reacted to her question like “a deer in the headlights.”

Zapata told investigators she sent the ballots “to show how easy it is to commit fraud in this manner,” according to the complaint against her.

Woodall Vogg also told Adams that Zapata's brother had died since she took over as the commission's deputy director in July 2022 and was using work to distract herself from her grief.

Assistant District Attorney Matthew Westphal pointed out that if Zapata was stressed, her actions only created more stress and injected more false information into the election process. He said that she had no authority to go outside the law.

Wisconsin's election and voting laws have been in the spotlight since President Joe Biden's victory in 2020, which came under attack from former President Donald Trump and his supporters who made unsubstantiated claims of widespread voter fraud. Milwaukee, home to the largest number of Democrats in Wisconsin, has been a target for complaints from Trump and his backers.

The trial comes two weeks before Wisconsin’s April 2 presidential primary. Wisconsin is once again one of a few battleground states crucial for both sides in the November presidential election.

Brandtjen faces her own legal troubles and will not be called to testify. The Wisconsin Ethics Commission last month recommended felony charges against Brandtjen and a fundraising committee for Trump related to alleged efforts to evade campaign finance laws during an attempt to unseat GOP Assembly Speaker Robin Vos.

Zapata was fired after her actions came to light.