Trial for former Milwaukee election official charged with election fraud expected to conclude Wednesday

Defense is attempting to show that Kimberly Zapata was a 'whistleblower'

Milwaukee County Courthouse
Milwaukee County Courthouse. Gretchen Brown/WPR

Milwaukee’s top election official said she believes her former deputy, who admitted to using fake names to request absentee ballots reserved for military members, did so to redirect a state lawmaker away from false election conspiracy theories.

Kimberly Zapata, 47, is on trial in Milwaukee County after she admitted to sending those absentee ballots to the home of Republican state Rep. Janel Brandtjen, who was promoting false theories about election fraud.

Zapata, former deputy director of the Milwaukee Election Commission, was fired and charged in 2022 with misconduct in public office, a felony, and three misdemeanor counts of election fraud.

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Claire Woodall, the executive director of the Milwaukee Election Commission, was Zapata’s former boss. She testified Tuesday that her office was facing threats of violence from people who falsely believed the 2020 presidential election was rigged. 

“She (Zapata) was trying to highlight to the conspirators what a real potential security concern would be, surrounding the MyVote website, and the ability to create fake people and request absentee ballots on their behalf and have them mailed, or emailed, anywhere,” Woodall told the jury.

The fake military ballots were requested through the MyVote Wisconsin website from Zapata’s work laptop on the morning of Oct. 25, 2020 and were mailed by clerks in Menomonee Falls, Shorewood and South Milwaukee. Zapata used her municipal login credentials to access the MyVote Wisconsin database to find Brandtjen’s home address, according to a criminal complaint. 

Woodall said Rep. Brandtjen had made several public records requests to her office and has caused “a lot of additional stress and work for things that are rooted in conspiracy theories.” 

“She (Zapata) knew who she was sending ballots to and the politics of that person,” Woodall said about Zapata’s actions, which she also called “naive.”

As deputy director, Zapata was in charge of early voting, absentee voting and voter registration. Woodall testified that Zapata had brought concerns about military absentee ballots to her and the Wisconsin Elections Commission in the past.

“She was frustrated that people like Representative Brandtjen continued to focus on what they consider election fraud issues that aren’t real, and that this is a real potential security issue that she wanted to bring to to her (Brandtjen’s) attention,” Woodall said.

Zapata’s jury trial began Monday and is expected to conclude Wednesday morning with closing arguments. Defense attorney Daniel Adams is attempting to show that Zapata was acting as a “whistleblower,” while prosecutors argue she committed fraud and violated the public’s trust. 

Zapata did not testify. She faces up to three-and-a-half years in prison a $10,000 fine if convicted of the felony charge, another six months for each of the election fraud charges.

Audio of interview with investigators played for jury

The jury listened to audio of an interview between Zapata and investigators. In the recording, Zapata claims she did not have “some manipulative plan” and said she acted because she was “fed up.” 

“I wanted to make a point of how there is fraud out there. It’s not what everybody is reporting, and all the conspiracy theories, but there is actual loopholes and things that are happening and I wanted to bring it to someone’s attention,” Zapata said in the interview. 

Zapata told investigators she sent the ballots to Brandtjen’s home because she believed the lawmaker wouldn’t mail the ballots back out and would also bring attention to it.

“She (Brandtjen) is the most vocal election fraud politician that I know of,” Zapata said in the recording. “I thought that maybe this would make her stop and think and redirect her focus away from these outrageous conspiracy theories to something that is actually real.” 

A criminal complaint states the ballots that Rep. Brandtjen received at her home address were addressed to Holly Brandtjen, Holly Jones and Holly Adams. When the ballots arrived at Brandtjen’s home the lawmaker contacted authorities and the media.

Brandtjen is facing possible criminal charges in a separate case. In February, the bipartisan Wisconsin Ethics Commission recommended felony prosecution against Brandtjen, Trump’s Save America committee and three county GOP arms, on allegations of campaign finance violations.

Following news of the incident, the Wisconsin Elections Commission said there are “multiple checks” in place to ensure fraudulent military absentee ballots are not counted.