Milwaukee elections worker fired over false ballot requests

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A top Milwaukee elections official has been fired after sending falsely obtained military absentee ballots to the home of a Republican state lawmaker who has been an outspoken critic of how the 2020 election was administered, the city's mayor said Thursday.

Kimberly Zapata, deputy director of the Milwaukee Election Commission, requested military ballots for fictitious voters from clerks in nearby municipalities using the state's MyVote Wisconsin website, Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson said just days before the midterm elections.

The ballots were sent to the home of Republican state Rep. Janel Brandtjen, who chairs of the Assembly elections committee and has voiced support for overturning the results of the 2020 presidential election in the state and promoted conspiracy theories about the same. Earlier this week, Brandtjen's office said she had received three ballots for military voters she believed to be fictitious and that the Waukesha County sheriff was investigating.

“I believe someone was trying to point out how easy it is to get military ballots in Wisconsin,” Brandtjen said in a statement Monday.

Zapata's motive for allegedly obtaining and sending the ballots wasn't immediately clear. She did not immediately respond to messages left Thursday at phone numbers believed to be hers.

The alleged actions echo those of a Racine man who requested and received absentee ballots in the names of lawmakers and local officials in July. That man, Harry Wait, said he wanted to expose vulnerabilities in the state's elections system. He has been charged with two misdemeanor counts of election fraud and two felony counts of identity theft — charges that could land him in prison for up to 13 years.

Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm said his office was reviewing allegations against Zapata and that he expects charges to be filed “in the coming days.”

In Wisconsin, military voters are not required to register to vote, meaning they don’t need to provide a photo ID to request an absentee ballot.

The Wisconsin Elections Commission and local elections officials who send out and collect ballots have a number of safeguards in place to catch fraudulent absentee ballot requests. The elections commission staff monitors the statewide voter registration system for indications of unauthorized requests. The MyVote website also requires a person requesting a ballot to verify that they are the person asking for it, along with a warning about potential penalties for committing fraud.

Zapata was fired immediately after the city was made aware that she might have been responsible, and she no longer has access to city computer networks or offices, the mayor said.

Zapata had worked for the elections commission for seven years and with the city of Milwaukee for nearly 10 years, according to Claire Woodall-Vogg, the elections commission's executive director. She declined to comment on why Zapata might have requested the ballots.

As part of her job, Zapata oversaw the counting of absentee ballots in Milwaukee. The mayor said the city is investigating whether she might have committed any other offenses.

“This has every appearance of being an egregious, blatant violation of trust, and this matter is now in the hands of law enforcement,” said Johnson.

Brandtjen earlier this week expressed shock at receiving the ballots, calling it “sad that people feel they have to break the law to get the attention of the Legislature.”

In August, after Wait's actions came to light, the election commission notified voters whose absentee ballot requests for the primary went to a mailing address different from the one on file to alert them of potential fraud.

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Harm Venhuizen is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow Venhuizen on Twitter.

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Follow the AP’s coverage of the midterm elections at https://apnews.com/hub/2022-midterm-elections and check out https://apnews.com/hub/explaining-the-elections to learn more about the issues and factors at play.

Harm Venhuizen, The Associated Press