MILWAUKEE (CN) — The Milwaukee mayor revealed on Thursday that a high-ranking city elections official was fired because she fraudulently requested three military absentee ballots and had them sent to the home of a Republican lawmaker sympathetic to election deniers.
In a press conference from Milwaukee City Hall, Democratic Mayor Cavalier Johnson, alongside Milwaukee Election Commission Executive Director Claire Woodall-Vogg, said the deputy director of the city’s election commission had been removed from office after he found out yesterday that she had allegedly requested the absentee ballots for fictious voters through a state elections website while off the clock.
Woodall-Vogg confirmed at the press conference that the suspect is the election commission’s deputy director Kimberly Zapata, who has worked for the commission for seven years and the city for a decade.
Zapata’s motive is unclear and Woodall-Vogg said there was no indication Zapata had ever done something like this before, but Johnson said it may have been “an effort to expose a vulnerability that state law created” in the absentee voting process.
In Wisconsin, military voters are not required to register to vote or provide photo ID to request an absentee ballot through an online portal facilitated by the Wisconsin Elections Commission.
Though the alleged crime did not take place at work, did not involve city of Milwaukee ballots and did not result in illegal voting or tampering with election results, Johnson said and tweeted that the action “has every indication of being an egregious, blatant violation of trust.”
When asked by reporters how they discovered Zapata’s alleged fraud, Woodall-Vogg said only that Zapata “was forthcoming.”
Zapata’s access to elections commission offices and computer systems were both immediately terminated along with her employment when her actions were discovered, Johnson said.
A statement from the office of Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm on Thursday said the office is “reviewing fraud allegations” against Zapata and expects charges to be filed in the coming days.
It was known before Thursday that someone, somewhere had requested three fake military ballots and sent them to the home address of state Representative Janel Brandtjen, a Menomonee Falls Republican who chairs the Wisconsin Assembly’s committee on campaigns and elections and has aligned herself with election deniers and promoted skepticism about the 2020 election results.
In a statement from Oct. 31, Brandtjen said she received the three ballots at her home on Oct. 27 from clerks in Menomonee Falls, South Milwaukee and Shorewood, all addressed to a “Holly” with different last names who does not live at her address and never has.
The lawmaker speculated at the time that the fraudulent ballots were an attempt to prove how easy it is to get military ballots in Wisconsin using a fictitious name and birthdate. Aside from the shock she felt at the disrespect to military servicemembers, Brandtjen expressed a level of sympathy for whoever had sent the ballots to her.
“I think it’s sad that people feel they have to break the law to get the attention of the legislature,” she said. “This is now the second time citizens have tried to point out loopholes in our elections.”
The first time involved the actions of Harry Wait, a Racine-area man and member of H.O.T. Government, a government transparency group that has spread false claims about voter fraud in the 2020 election and recently filed two lawsuits in Kenosha County Circuit Court against the state elections commission over absentee voting procedures the group claims are illegal.
The Wisconsin Department of Justice’s Division of Criminal Investigation on Sept. 1 charged Wait in Racine County Circuit Court with two counts of election fraud and two counts of unauthorized use of personal identifying information for allegedly requesting two absentee ballots in the names of Racine Mayor Cory Mason, a Democrat, and Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, a Republican.
According to the criminal complaint, Wait openly admitted to having committed voter fraud on the social media platforms Telegram and Rumble around the time he did so, saying he is ready to be prosecuted for “exposing these voting vulnerabilities.”
Wait, 68, has compared himself to founding fathers like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington in defending his actions, which he considers civil disobedience. He pleaded not guilty to all charges against him on Oct. 21 and will be back in court in Racine on Dec. 2.
Though he is no longer involved with Wait’s case, former state supreme court justice Michael Gableman appeared as Wait’s attorney at an early court hearing. Gableman headed a messy, taxpayer-funded review of the 2020 election for more than a year before being fired by Vos in August, during which he advanced fringe conspiracy theories and suggested decertifying the state’s 2020 election results, though legal experts and lawmakers said that was unlawful and impossible.
Neither Gableman’s audit nor two other independent reviews of Wisconsin’s election administration and results found any evidence widespread fraud in 2020. President Joe Biden won the state that year over Donald Trump by around 20,000 votes, a victory that was confirmed by a recount and survived multiple lawsuits.
Brandtjen noted on Oct. 31 that she contacted Gableman and the conservative, Chicago-based Thomas More Society “to determine legal options available to stop the theft of military ballots in Wisconsin” at the same time she delivered the unopened ballots sent to her home to the Waukesha County Sheriff’s Department.
Thursday’s revelations could escalate tensions in what is already a contentious midterm election in the Badger State with major state and national implications, and for which early voting has been underway for more than a week ahead of Election Day on Tuesday.
On the ballot are a contest for governor between Democratic incumbent Tony Evers and local construction magnate Tim Michels, and one for a U.S. Senate seat between Republican incumbent Ron Johnson and Evers’ lieutenant governor Mandela Barnes. A Marquette Law School poll released Wednesday has both races neck-and-neck.
Members of the Milwaukee Common Council issued a statement on Thursday blasting Zapata’s alleged crimes and, along with Johnson, emphasized their unshaken confidence in the city’s election protocols.
“Despite the actions of this now former city official, we continue to have faith in our election workers, our system, and the overall integrity of our election operation in the city of Milwaukee,” they said.
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