After residency claims against Wisconsin lawmaker, commission to review elections complaint

Complainants have alleged Wisconsin state Rep. Shannon Zimmerman, R-River Falls, does not primarily live in his elected district and has failed to disclose a Florida business
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Records indicate the Wisconsin Elections Commission is set to discuss complaints alleging state Rep. Shannon Zimmerman, R-River Falls, doesn’t reside in the district he serves.

Emails obtained by Bring Me The News show the committee has planned to discuss the topic at its meeting Wednesday. The agenda includes a closed session to discuss an elections complaint.

The outcome could provide a response to yearslong questioning, from Democrats and Republicans, of Zimmerman’s compliance with Wisconsin residence requirements for voting and holding office. However, this would necessitate a break from WEC’s track record of ending meetings with a tied vote. The commission, which replaced the nonpartisan Wisconsin Government Accountability Board in 2016, is comprised of three Republicans and three Democrats.

Complainants have focused their case on the discrepancy between the addresses Zimmerman, who was elected in 2016 to represent District 30, uses for tax filings and for voting. 

Pierce County records show that since 2003, he has claimed a lottery tax credit — which Wisconsin limits to one primary residence, defined as where one lives for at least half the year — on the $600,000 house he owns in the town of Clifton, a few miles outside of his district. The property, which is actually in District 93, sits adjacent to the vineyard he owns, Belle Vinez Vineyard and Winery.

While continuing to claim the tax credit, since 2016 Zimmerman has listed a River Falls property as his voting address, along with his son, attorney Nicholas Zimmerman. His wife, Angela, has continued to use the Clifton home as her voting address, according to voter records obtained by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

For voting and holding office, Wisconsin state law defines residence as “the place where the person’s habitation is fixed, without any intent to move, and to which, when absent, the person intends to return.”

A letter obtained by Bring Me The News from the Wisconsin Attorney General’s office to one of Zimmerman's constituents says: “Because residency is based on the intent of the individual, it is not always a black-and-white issue and would not necessarily be determined by where an individual sleeps on a given night.”

One of the complaints, obtained by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, details the placement of windows at both residences and provides screenshots of Zimmerman's online video appearances. Windows consistent with the layout of the Clifton house are visible in the background.

Zimmerman, who did not respond to BMTN's request for comment, has previously called the complaints “frivolous,” but has yet to publicly explain the discrepancies. In September, he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he believed the tax credit for the Clifton house was "an oversight and a mistake on the communication between my accounting firm," adding, "I want to clarify that before I say anything official on this." 

Two months later, Zimmerman claimed the same tax credit on the Clifton home, Pierce County property records show. 

Residency a common political complaint

Disputes over a politician’s residency aren’t uncommon. In Congress, members who don’t live in their district are often attacked for it by their opponents, but have no legal obligation to move. Wisconsin state law, however, requires legislators to reside in the district they vote and serve in.

Former Wisconsin state Sen. Frank Lasee faced similar allegations in 2014. Democrats filed a complaint with the Government Accountability Board alleging that Lasee, who represented the De Pere area, actually lived 150 miles south in Racine. The complainants pointed to City of Racine property tax records that listed his wife's Racine home as Lasee's mailing address.

In response, Lasee said his wife lives in Racine with her children, while his own children live with him and attend school in De Pere. He added that because their respective child custody agreements prevent them from moving to one city or the other, he travels between the cities to balance family commitments. The GAB dismissed the complaint

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If the WEC were to vote that the complaint has merit, it would forward the case to a district attorney — in this case, the Pierce County District Attorney — for review. "There is NO guarantee that the District Attorney will prosecute or contact the complainant or respondent further," the WEC website reads. 

If found guilty by the district attorney, it’s unclear what consequences are possible. However, state statute does outline that if the Wisconsin Attorney General were to review such a case and find a lawmaker didn’t meet residency requirements, the case progresses to whichever chamber of the legislature the lawmaker in question belonged to, which would then “determine whether the person is qualified to be seated or whether a vacancy exists.”

In late January, the Wisconsin Examiner reported that Zimmerman failed to disclose his Florida vacation rental business — which lists the Clifton home as his mailing address — in his statements of economic interest as required under Wisconsin law. The St. Croix County Democrats have since filed a complaint regarding the revelation with the WEC.

The local Democratic party office also sent a letter to the WEC requesting that commissioner Dean Knudson, a Republican who used to represent Zimmerman's district and has publicly supported him, recuse himself from the vote regarding residency compliance. 

When running for office in 2016, Zimmerman said he “would change his ‘primary residence’” to inside the district, according to local news source Rivertown Multimedia. After he won the Republican primary that year, Rivertown reported he said he had “changed his main residence” to River Falls.

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