Saturday, February 4, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Former Milwaukee election official pleads not guilty to voter fraud

Charging documents say Kimberly Zapata, currently free on a signature bond, ordered false ballots in an attempt to illuminate loopholes in Wisconsin election laws.

MILWAUKEE (CN) — A former high-ranking Milwaukee election official charged with requesting fraudulent military absentee ballots in the recent general election had her first day in court on Friday, where she pleaded not guilty to three voter fraud misdemeanors.

Kimberly Zapata, 45, faces one felony count of misconduct in public office and three counts of making a false statement to obtain or vote an absentee ballot, all misdemeanors. The felony carries a maximum penalty of a $10,000 fine or 3.5 years in prison, or both; the misdemeanors carry potential penalties of a $1,000 fine, six months imprisonment, or both.

Prosecutors say Zapata used fake names to falsely apply for three absentee ballots meant for military and overseas voters, then used her governmental access to obtain the home address of state Republican lawmaker Janel Brandtjen of Menomonee Falls and had the fraudulent ballots mailed there.

“Zapata admitted that she was attempting to highlight flaws within the absentee system,” the complaint against her says. “She stated that attempting to highlight the flaws within the system is an attempt to maintain election integrity, which is part of her job.”

Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson first revealed on Nov. 3 that Zapata—who had risen to the position of deputy director in seven years with the city elections commission—had been promptly removed from office after he discovered her actions. The Milwaukee County District Attorney’s office filed the criminal complaint the following day.

Johnson and Milwaukee Election Commission Executive Director Claire Woodall-Vogg said earlier this month there was no evidence Zapata had ever done something like this before.

Zapata’s counsel, Abigail Bongiorno, an attorney with the Chicago-based Thomas More Society, entered not guilty pleas on behalf of her client for the three voter fraud misdemeanors. A plea on the felony misconduct charge was deferred until Zapata’s preliminary hearing on Dec. 9.

Assistant District Attorney Matthew Westphal advocated for a no-contact order against Zapata as to Brandtjen and Woodall-Vogg, as well as an order stating she is not to be involved in election administration of any kind throughout the case, both of which were granted by Milwaukee County Court Commissioner Maria Dorsey.

Though Johnson said Zapata was removed from office on Nov. 3, Bongiorno said her client is still technically employed by the city of Milwaukee.

Zapata was not in custody when arraigned, and she was released on a $2,500 signature bond. The rest of her case will be handled by Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Laura Crivello.

Alarms over the fraudulent military ballots were first raised by Brandtjen, who said days before Zapata’s identity was revealed that someone, somewhere had sent the ballots to her home. At that time, the lawmaker said “it’s sad that people feel they have to break the law to get the attention of the legislature” about shortcomings with state election laws.

Brandtjen—who has courted election deniers and given a platform to conspiracy theorists as chair of the Wisconsin Assembly’s elections and campaigns committee—was recently frozen out of a legislative Republican caucus because its members said they no longer trust her, a move Brandtjen called “petty.” Reports indicate it is likely she will lose her committee chairmanship in the next legislative session slated to start in January.

A group of roughly a dozen protesters supporting Zapata and beating the drum for efforts to expose alleged election fraud gathered outside the Milwaukee County Safety Building before Zapata’s arraignment on Friday.

Harry Wait, right, a Wisconsin activist who has spread false claims of widespread electoral fraud and is currently being prosecuted for committing voter fraud, rallies outside the Milwaukee County Safety Building on Friday, Dec. 2, 2022, before the arraignment of Kimberly Zapata, a former Milwaukee elections official who also faces voter fraud charges. (Joe Kelly/Courthouse News)

Among them was Harry Wait, a 68-year-old Wisconsinite who is also currently charged with voter fraud in Racine County Circuit Court. Wait is a member of H.O.T. Government, a group that has spread false claims about widespread fraud in the 2020 election and has sued the WEC over absentee voting procedures the group claims are illegal.

Wait, 68, openly admitted to having committed voter fraud on social media around the time he did so, according to the criminal complaint against him. He has compared himself to America's founding fathers in defending his actions, which he considers civil disobedience, and said he stands ready to face prosecution “for exposing these voting vulnerabilities.”

Though he was due in court in Racine in a couple of hours for a court hearing, Wait mingled with the protesters on Friday afternoon before becoming the center of their attention.

Addressing the group—some of whom wore yellow sweatshirts reading “Free Harry” and “Harry’s Fight Is Our Fight”—Wait told them it was “very important that we support Zapata for what she revealed to us” about flaws in the state’s election laws.

Before he spoke to the group, some of the gathered demonstrators held their hands out to Wait at the direction of a man leading a group prayer, as if blessing him.

Also among the protesters was Tim Ramthun, a Republican state representative who ran in the recent GOP primary for Wisconsin’s governorship on a campaign platform based largely around taking action on voter fraud and decertifying the 2020 election results, which experts and lawmakers have said is impossible and unlawful. Ramthun lost the primary, gaining 6% of the vote, according to canvass results from the WEC.

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.

Loading
Loading...