Advertisement

Jury finds former Milwaukee election official guilty of obtaining fake absentee ballots

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A jury found a former Milwaukee election official accused of obtaining fake absentee ballots guilty Wednesday of misconduct in office and fraud, rejecting her arguments that she was trying to expose vulnerabilities in the state’s election system.

Prosecutors charged Kimberly Zapata in November 2022 with one felony count of misconduct in public office and three misdemeanor counts of election fraud. The jury found her guilty in Milwaukee County Circuit Court on all four counts after starting deliberations Wednesday morning.

Zapata faces up to five years behind bars when she’s sentenced on May 2.

Zapata was serving as deputy director at the Milwaukee Election Commission in October 2022 when she used her work-issued laptop to obtain three military absentee ballots using fake names and Social Security numbers, according to a criminal complaint. She sent the ballots to Republican state Rep. Janel Brandtjen, an election conspiracy theorist, two weeks before the state’s gubernatorial and legislative elections.

Brandtjen has advocated for decertifying President Joe Biden’s 2020 win in Wisconsin and has espoused conspiracy theories supporting her position.

Active military personnel do not have to register to vote or provide photo identification to obtain absentee ballots in Wisconsin. Zapata told investigators that she was stressed over death threats commission staff had been receiving from election conspiracy theorists and she wanted to shift their attention to real flaws in the system.

Her attorney, Daniel Adams, had argued during a two-day trial that Zapata saw herself as a whistleblower and didn’t mean to hurt anyone. Assistant District Attorney Matthew Westphal countered that Zapata went rogue and broke the law rather than sharing her concerns with state election officials, reporters or legislators.

“She is not a whistleblower. She’s not exposing information. She’s committing election fraud,” Westphal said during his closing arguments Wednesday morning. “As a society we cannot tolerate people who break the law when there are multiple legitimate means to raise those same concerns.”

Adams declined to comment through a receptionist at his law office after the verdicts were handed down.

The case against Zapata mirrors one against Harry Wait, a Racine man who requested and received absentee ballots in the names of legislators and local officials in July. Wait also said he wanted to expose vulnerabilities in the state’s elections system. He faces up to 13 years in prison if convicted on two misdemeanor counts of election fraud and two felony counts of identity theft.

Milwaukee, home to the largest number of Democrats in Wisconsin, has been a target for complaints from former President Donald Trump and his supporters, who made unsubstantiated claims of widespread voter fraud to attack Biden’s 2020 victory.

Heading into the state’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. The Wisconsin Ethics Commission last month recommended felony charges against Brandtjen and a fundraising committee for Trump, accusing them of efforts to evade campaign finance laws during an attempt to unseat GOP Assembly Speaker Robin Vos.

___

This story has been corrected to show Zapata’s first name is spelled Kimberly, not Kimberley.