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Former election official gets 1 year probation for sending fake absentee ballots to GOP lawmaker

Kimberly Zapata, former deputy director of the Milwaukee Election Commission, will also pay $3K in fines and complete 120 hours of community service

Kimberly Zapata, the former deputy director of the Milwaukee Election Commission, appears in court.
Kimberly Zapata (left), the former deputy director of the Milwaukee Election Commission, appears in court with Defense Attorney, Daniel Adams during her jury trial in a Milwaukee County Courthouse in Milwaukee on Monday, March 18, 2024. Mike De Sisti/The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

A former Milwaukee County election official will serve 12 months probation for election fraud under a sentence imposed Thursday.

Kimberly Zapata, former deputy director of the Milwaukee Election Commission, admitted requesting absentee ballots under fake names and sending them to the home of a state lawmaker who had been promoting false claims about fraud in Wisconsin’s 2020 presidential election.

Zapata contended she was acting as a whistleblower, her attorney arguing at trial that she took the action to draw attention to a problem in the system and to direct the lawmakers attention away from conspiracy theories. But a jury disagreed, finding Zapata guilty of three misdemeanor counts of election fraud and one felony count of misconduct in office during a three-day trial in March.

At a sentencing hearing Thursday, Milwaukee Assistant District Attorney Matthew Westphal said Zapata’s actions were “an attack on our electoral system,” which only works if the public can trust those administering it. He said with at least four years of constant accusations of voter fraud, Zapata was “exacerbating the situation.”

“Accusations of election fraud have literally led to violence and a violent insurrection in Washington, D.C.,” Westphal said. “That’s kind of the behavior we’re looking at here on the spectrum. That’s where we end up when we have people that are violating their duties, and that are putting forth this false information.”

Zapata’s attorney Daniel Adams bristled at Zapata being likened to the rioters who stormed the capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

“The paradox is that my client — being such a stickler for rules and procedure and fairness and equality in the electoral system — sought to, I call it whistleblowing, but just point a lantern at what she saw as something that was not a fair aspect, a very small flaw, but a flaw indeed, in this ballot request issue,” Adams said.

Speaking just before the sentence was handed down, Zapata said she regrets her actions in 2022, which “stemmed from a complete emotional breakdown.” She said she has autism spectrum disorder, which makes it difficult for her to regulate emotions, sensory input and thought processes.

“When someone uses my name, I want them to think of good qualities and the good things I have done,” Zapata said. “I don’t wish to be forever attached to what I did in that eight-minute window of my life.”

Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Kori Ashley called it a difficult case. The judge said that while Zapata may have thought she was exposing a loophole in the state’s online voting system, she does not see her as a whistleblower.

“I think you had legitimate means to go about solving an issue that you identified and I think you took a shortcut,” Ashley said. “I think that’s oftentimes how crime happens, Miss Zapata. A shortcut was taken.”

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In addition to the probation term, Ashley gave Zapata a $3,000 fine.

Zapata was fired from the election commission in November 2022 after she admitted she fraudulently requested military absentee ballots and sent them to the home of state Rep. Janel Brandtjen, R-Menomonee Falls. She said she did so because she was “fed up” with being harassed over false election fraud claims and wanted to make a point that loopholes exist within the state’s online election system.

Zapata had served on the commission for seven years.

In a statement last month, Brandtjen said she had never met Zapata “until days before the 2022 election.” She said the case highlighted a “critical flaw” in the state’s WisVote system, which is used to request absentee ballots.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced a bill last year responding to Zapata’s case. It would have required military voters to provide their Department of Defense number when applying online for absentee ballots. The bill was opposed by the Rock County Clerk and Wisconsin Adjutant General Paul Knapp, who commands the Wisconsin National Guard. Knapp testified that military ID numbers cannot be shared with municipal clerks under DOD policy.

The bill never got a vote in the GOP-controlled state Assembly or Senate.

Brandtjen, a former chair of the Assembly Committee on Campaigns and Elections, used her position to amplify speakers who have sown doubts about Wisconsin’s 2020 presidential election results. Former Republican President Donald Trump, who continues to falsely claim his loss to President Joe Biden was due to election fraud, promoted many false claims made to Brandtjen’s committee. She was one of a small group of Republican lawmakers who called for the 2020 results to be decertified, which experts have said is legally impossible. 

An April survey of registered voters by the Marquette University Law School found Trump with a slight lead over Biden in the state. 

Republican Assembly members banned Brandtjen from attending private GOP caucus meetings with Majority Caucus Chair Rep. Rob Summerfield, R-Bloomer, telling her it was because of “continual issues from the past” that led the caucus “to lose trust in you.” The move came days after Brandtjen received the fraudulent ballots from Zapata. 

The next month, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, stripped Brandtjen of her committee position as chair of the elections commission.

Zapata also received an imposed and stayed sentence of nine months of incarceration. She would only be required to serve that prison time if her probation is revoked.