The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Military ballots in Wisconsin will be counted under judge’s ruling

Election official says she created fake ballots for the ‘greater good’ of exposing the potential for voter fraud

People cheer on Wisconsin state Rep. Janel Brandtjen (R) outside the state Capitol in Madison, Wis., on Aug. 6, 2021. (Todd Richmond/AP)
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MADISON, Wis. — A judge declined Monday to issue an order that would have delayed or prevented the counting of military ballots in Wisconsin in a lawsuit that came after a disaffected election worker said she reached a “breaking point” and created three fake ballots to highlight flaws in the state’s voting system.

Waukesha County Judge Michael Maxwell said he was refusing the request to block the immediate counting of military ballots because he considered the idea a “drastic remedy” that would have risked disenfranchising more than 1,000 service members.

The lawsuit was filed Friday by state Rep. Janel Brandtjen (R) and others after Brandtjen received three military ballots at her home under fictitious names. Kimberly Zapata, who at the time was Milwaukee’s deputy elections director, told prosecutors that she ordered the fake ballots because she was frustrated by Brandtjen and other Republicans focusing on baseless claims instead of actual weaknesses in Wisconsin’s voting procedures.

“I just came to a breaking point of all the harassment and the complaints and the criticism and even the death threats that our office receives regarding election administration and the mistrust in it. It’s not what they’re saying. It’s not conspiracy theories. It’s not satellites that are changing votes,” she said in an interview Monday, referring to a false and far-fetched claim that satellites were used to manipulate voting machines. “But on the other hand, it’s not nothing either.”

Unlike most states, Wisconsin allows military members to cast absentee ballots without registering to vote or providing proof of residency. Zapata said she used a state website to have three ballots sent under invented names to Brandtjen to show how that law could be exploited.

Prosecutors on Friday charged Zapata with felony misconduct in office and three misdemeanor counts of making false statements to obtain absentee ballots. She faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $13,000 fine.

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Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson fired Zapata from her position as deputy elections director last week, and the city is now reviewing whether she can keep a civil service job.

“I understand what I did was wrong, and I understand that I need consequences for it,” Zapata said. “But at the same time, I did this for the greater good. I did this for the American voters to believe in the election system again. But now I am struggling because even though what I did was wrong, it came from pure of heart. But now I’m facing financial ruin because of this.”

Zapata said she sought to draw attention to what she saw as a problem in “the loudest and most attention-grabbing way.”

State Rep. Mark Spreitzer (D), a member of the Wisconsin State Assembly’s elections committee, said Zapata should have raised her concerns with lawmakers instead of creating fake ballots. He said she wasn’t helping improve trust in the state’s voting system.

“I think it did the exact opposite of improve voter confidence in the election,” he said. “It undermined it by making people think that there might be some vulnerability here when that vulnerability, at least right now, seems to be entirely theoretical in that someone could do what she did but there’s no evidence that anybody but her has actually done it.”

Ann Jacobs, a Democrat on the state’s bipartisan elections commission, said Zapata should have brought her concerns to local or state election authorities instead of ordering fake ballots.

“There’s lots of different ways to address it. She chose none of them,” she said.

Zapata said she was confident when she sent the fake ballots that they would not be counted but said she has been troubled by the possibility that those who wanted to commit fraud could do so. Other election officials have said they would quickly catch any attempt to create fake ballots that were created in sufficient numbers to change the results of an election.

Zapata described herself as a swing voter, saying she does not consider herself a Republican or Democrat. She has not made political donations, according to state and federal campaign finance databases.

She said a Republican business executive has offered to pay her legal bills, but she has not accepted the offer. She has hired Democratic attorney Michael Maistelman and briefly set up a GoFundMe page that has since been taken down.

Brandtjen, the chairwoman of the state Assembly’s elections committee, frequently promotes false claims about elections. In response to receiving the fake ballots, she filed a lawsuit that sought to prevent the counting of military ballots unless local officials could show they were following a law requiring them to keep lists of all military voters. About 1,400 military ballots had been cast as of Friday.

After hearing more than two hours of arguments Monday, the judge declined to go along with that request.

“I think I made clear in my questioning that I felt that was a drastic remedy, that I felt that it was at least at a minimum a temporary disenfranchisement of our military voters,” he said.

Brandtjen brought her suit in conjunction with the conservative Thomas More Society and Michael Gableman, a former Wisconsin Supreme Court justice who led a year-long review of the 2020 election for Republican lawmakers. Gableman wrote reports that reiterated the findings of others who had looked into the 2020 election and called for considering trying to rescind the election results.

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Divided government: Republicans narrowly won back control of the House, while Democrats will keep control of the Senate, creating a split Congress.

What the results mean for 2024: A Republican Party red wave seems to be a ripple after Republicans fell short in the Senate and narrowly won control in the House. Donald Trump announced his 2024 presidential campaign shortly after the midterms. Here are the top 10 2024 presidential candidates for the Republicans and Democrats.