Milwaukee election official fired after fraudulently requesting military ballots and sending them to state lawmaker

The deputy director of Milwaukee’s election commission has been with the commission for 7 years

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Poll workers sort out early and absentee ballots at the Kenosha Municipal building.
Poll workers sort out early and absentee ballots at the Kenosha Municipal building on Election Day in Kenosha, Wis., on Nov. 3, 2020. Wong Maye-E/AP Photo

The deputy director of Milwaukee’s election commission has been fired after she fraudulently requested military absentee ballots and sent them to a state Republican representative.

Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson said he fired election official Kimberly Zapata after she sent the improperly-obtained ballots to state Rep. Janel Brandtjen, R-Menomonee Falls. Brandtjen, the chair of the Assembly Committee on Campaigns and Elections, has come under scrutiny at times for using her committee to amplify speakers who’ve sown doubt about the 2020 election.

Johnson said he was “absolutely stunned” when he heard of the allegations against Zapata.

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“This has every appearance of being an egregious, blatant violation of trust,” Johnson said during a press conference Thursday morning. “This matter is now in the hands of law enforcement.”

Johnson said the city hasn’t learned of any other violations by Zapata as of Thursday morning.

“Even so, we’re looking into the possibility of other misdeeds,” Johnson said.

Cavalier Johnson gestures as he speaks at a podium.
Cavalier Johnson speaks to supporters at his election night after being elected Milwaukee’s first Black mayor Tuesday, April 5, 2022, in Milwaukee, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

According to a statement sent to WPR, the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office is reviewing the allegations against Zapata.

“We expect charges to be filed in the coming days,” the statement said.

Claire Woodall-Vogg, executive director of Milwaukee Election Commission, said Zapata had been with the commission for seven years. Woodall-Vogg said she’s not sure of a motive yet, but added that law enforcement will investigate.

“Up until this point we had never had any indication of any type of violation of work policies or procedures,” Woodall-Vogg said about Zapata.

Woodall-Vogg said she believes Zapata used the state website MyVote Wisconsin to accomplish the task, not an internal database. Military members, who are not required to register to vote, are exempt from providing any photo identification information.

“It is my belief that she was pointing out that you can go onto the public system, make up a person and request the ballot,” Woodall-Vogg said.

Attempts to reach Zapata Thursday were unsuccessful.

Janel Brandtjen sits behind a microphone.
Rep. Janel Brandtjen, R-Menomonee Falls, center, speaks as former state Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman presents a report to the Assembly Committee on Campaigns and Elections Tuesday, March 1, 2022, in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Brandtjen, who has not responded to a request for comment from Wisconsin Public Radio, said in a statement she received three military ballots addressed to her home last week. The ballots came from clerks in Menomonee Falls, South Milwaukee and Shorewood.

She said the ballots were all addressed to “Holly,” with three different last names.

“I believe someone was trying to point out how easy it is to get military ballots in Wisconsin. Registration for military ballots is not required, so a fictitious name and birthdate is all that is required to obtain a military ballot online,” Brandtjen said in the statement.

Brandtjen delivered the ballots to the Waukesha County Sheriff’s Office, where they will be investigated.

The news comes as scrutiny around elections and election integrity is on the forefront of many voters’ minds across the state and nation.

Johnson said he wants voters to have faith in the system ahead of the Nov. 8 primary election.

“If anybody tries to interfere with elections in Milwaukee, they will be handled appropriately,” Johnson said, adding that Zapata was fired immediately.

The move by Zapata mirrors a similar action taken by a Racine County man last summer.

A woman marches holding a sign that says
A woman holds a sign outside of the Racine County Sheriff’s Office on Tuesday, August 2, 2022. Protesters met there to call for the removal of Racine County Christopher Schmaling, who declined to charge a man who illegally requested absentee ballots. Evan Casey/WPR

Wisconsin’s Department of Justice charged Harry Wait with multiple felonies for requesting absentee ballots in the name of Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Racine Mayor Cory Mason without their permission.

Wait announced in late July that he requested the absentee ballots through the state’s MyVote Wisconsin website to point out flaws with the system. Wait requested ballots for Vos and Mason by entering their personal information, including their birthdates. He said he also requested several other absentee ballots for people around the state after getting their permission first.

When Wait learned of the news Thursday, he said he appreciated what Zapata did.

“So, I’d say kudos to the person who did this,” Wait said.

In response to the incident, the Republican Party of Wisconsin called out the Wisconsin Elections Commission in a statement. The WEC has not responded to a request for comment from a reporter yet.

“Election officials need to follow the law. However, the vulnerabilities that continue to be exposed in the MyVote system for requesting absentee ballots should be shocking to everyone. We remain very concerned that these vulnerabilities exist and that the Elections Commission is not taking the proper steps to mitigate the risks of potential fraud those vulnerabilities in the system create,” said RPW communications director Chad Doran.

Brandtjen also released a statement, calling out Johnson for the firing.

“Unlike Mayor Johnson, I have actually been working on providing Wisconsinites a safe and secure election process,” Brandtjen said, adding that she believes her commission has “uncovered massive amounts of election disparities and a statewide Election Commission that has undeniably broken the law on numerous occasions.”

The executive board of the Democratic Party of Milwaukee County also responded.

“The Democratic Party of Milwaukee County wholeheartedly condemns Kimberly Zapata for filing fraudulent requests for military absentee ballots,” the board said in a statement.

Chris Larson
Wisconsin Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, addresses delegates at the Democratic Party of Wisconsin convention in Lake Delton, Wis., in this Friday, June 6, 2014, file photo. Democratic state Sen. Chris Larson, of Milwaukee, is preparing to join an already crowded field of candidates for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Republican Sen. Ron Johnson. Larson filed paperwork for a run on Tuesday and was expected to announce his candidacy as soon as Wednesday, May 26, 2021. Andy Manis/AP Photo

“This attempt to undermine confidence in our elections and abuse the system our service members use to participate in democracy is wholly disqualifying for any staff member of the commission.”

In a statement, Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, condemned the action and added that he was thankful that Zapata was fired.

“She did this outside of work and there is no indication of further misdeeds. I applaud the Mayor and Director Woodall-Vogg for taking election integrity seriously as they always have,” Larson stated.

Editor’s note: This story will be updated.

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