Democrats began pushing on Wednesday for the most substantial expansion of voting rights in a half-century, laying the groundwork in the Senate for what would be a fundamental change to the ways voters get to the polls and elections are run.
At a contentious hearing on Capitol Hill, Democratic leaders made a passionate case for a bill that would mandate automatic voter registration nationwide, expand early and mail-in voting, end gerrymandering that skews congressional districts for maximum partisan advantage and curb the influence of money in politics.
The effort is taking shape as Republicans have introduced more than 250 bills to restrict voting in 43 states and have continued to spread false accusations of fraud and impropriety in the 2020 election. It comes just months after those claims, spread by President Donald J. Trump as he sought to cling to power, fueled a deadly riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6 that showed how deeply his party had come to believe in the myth of a stolen election.
Republicans were unapologetic in their opposition to the measure, with some openly arguing that if Democrats succeeded in making it easier for Americans to vote and in enacting the other changes in the bill, it would most likely place their party permanently in the minority.
“Any American who thinks that the fight for a full and fair democracy is over is sadly and sorely mistaken,” said Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader. “Today, in the 21st century, there is a concerted, nationwide effort to limit the rights of citizens to vote and to truly have a voice in their own government.”
Mr. Schumer’s rare appearance at a committee meeting underscored the stakes, not just for the election process but for his party’s own political future. He called the proposed voting rollbacks in dozens of states — including Georgia, Iowa and Arizona — an “existential threat to our democracy” reminiscent of the Jim Crow segregationist laws of the past.
He chanted “Shame! Shame! Shame!” at Republicans who were promoting them.
It was the start of an uphill battle by Senate Democrats, who have characterized what they call the For the People Act as the civil rights imperative of modern times, to overcome divisions in their own ranks and steer around Republican opposition to shepherd it into law. Doing so may require them to change Senate rules to eliminate the filibuster, once used by segregationists to block civil rights measures in the 1960s.
Republicans signaled they were ready to fight. Conceding that allowing more people to vote would probably hurt their candidates, they denounced the legislation, passed by the House this month, as a power grab by Democrats intent on federalizing elections to give themselves a permanent political advantage. They insisted that it was the right of states to set their own election laws, including those that make it harder to vote, and warned that Democrats’ proposal could lead to rampant fraud, which experts say has never been found to be widespread.
“This is an attempt by one party to write the rules of our political system,” said Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, who has spent much of his career opposing such changes.
“Talk about ‘shame,’” he added later.
Some Republicans resorted to lies or distortions to condemn the measure, falsely claiming that Democrats were seeking to cheat by enfranchising undocumented immigrants or encouraging illegal voting. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas said the bill aimed to register millions of unauthorized immigrants, though that would remain unlawful under the measure.
The clash laid bare just how sharply the two parties have diverged on the issue of voting rights, which attracted bipartisan support for years after the civil rights movement but more recently has become a bitter partisan battleground. At times, Republicans and Democrats appeared to be wrestling with irreconcilably different views of the problems plaguing the election system.
Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, the top Republican on the Senate Rules Committee, which convened the hearing, said states were taking appropriate steps to restore public confidence after 2020 by imposing laws that require voters to show identification before voting and limiting so-called ballot harvesting, where others collect voters’ completed absentee ballots and submit them to election officials. He said that if Democrats were allowed to rush through changes on the national level, “chaos will reign in the next election and voters will have less confidence than they currently do.”
The suggestion piqued Senator Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota and the committee chairwoman, who shot back that it was the current elections system — an uneven patchwork of state laws and evolving voting rules — that had caused “chaos” at polling places.
“Chaos is what we’ve seen in the last years — five-hour or six-hour lines in states like Arizona to vote. Chaos is purging names of longtime voters from a voter list so they can’t go vote in states like Georgia,” she said. “What this bill tries to do is to simply make it easier for people to vote and take the best practices that what we’ve seen across the country, and put it into law as we are allowed to do under the Constitution.”
With Republicans unified against them, Democrats’ best hope for enacting the legislation increasingly appears to be to try to leverage its voting protections — to justify triggering the Senate’s so-called nuclear option: the elimination of the filibuster rule requiring 60 votes, rather than a simple majority, to advance most bills.
Even that may be a prohibitively heavy lift, though, at least in the bill’s current form. Liberal activists who are spending tens of millions of dollars promoting it insist that the package must move as one bill. But Senator Joe Manchin III, a centrist West Virginia Democrat whose support they would need both to change the filibuster rules and to push through the elections bill, said on Wednesday that he would not support it in its current form.
Speaking to reporters in the Capitol, Mr. Manchin said he feared that pushing through partisan changes would create more “division” that the country could not afford after the Jan. 6 attack, and instead suggested narrowing the bill.
“There’s so much good in there, and so many things I think all of us should be able to be united around voting rights, but it should be limited to the voting rights,” he said. “We’re going to have a piece of legislation that might divide us even further on a partisan basis. That shouldn’t happen.”
But it is unclear whether even major changes could win Republican support in the Senate. As written, the more than 800-page bill, which passed the House 220 to 210 mostly along party lines, is the most ambitious elections overhaul in generations, chock-full of provisions that experts say would drive up turnout, particularly among minorities who tend to vote Democratic. Many of them are anathema to Republicans.
Its voting provisions alone would create minimum standards for states, neutering voter ID laws, restoring voting rights to former felons, and putting in place requirements like automatic voter registration and no-excuse mail-in balloting. Many of the restrictive laws proposed by Republicans in the states would move in the opposite direction.
The bill would also require states to use independent commissions to draw nonpartisan congressional districts, a change that would weaken the advantages of Republicans who control the majority of state legislatures currently in charge of drawing those maps. It would force super PACs to disclose their big donors and create a new public campaign financing system for congressional candidates.
Democrats also said they still planned to advance a separate bill restoring a key enforcement provision in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, after a 2013 Supreme Court ruling gutted it. The ruling paved the way for many of the restrictive state laws Democrats are now fighting.
In the hearing room on Wednesday, Republicans ticked through a long list of provisions they did not like, including a restructuring of the Federal Election Commission to make it more partisan and punitive, a host of election administration changes they predicted would cause mass “chaos” if carried out and the public campaign financing system.
“This bill is the single most dangerous bill this committee has ever considered,” Mr. Cruz said. “This bill is designed to corrupt the election process permanently, and it is a brazen and shameless power grab by Democrats.”
Mr. Cruz falsely claimed that the bill would register undocumented immigrants to vote and accused Democrats of wanting the most violent criminals to cast ballots, too.
In fact, it is illegal for noncitizens to vote, and the bill would do nothing to change that or a requirement that people registering to vote swear they are citizens. It would extend the franchise to millions of former felons, as some states already do, but only after they have served their sentences.
Though few senators mentioned him by name, Mr. Trump and his false claims of election fraud hung heavily over the debate.
To make their case, Republicans turned to two officials who backed an effort to overturn then-President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s election victory. Mac Warner, the secretary of state of West Virginia, and Todd Rokita, the attorney general of Indiana, both supported a Texas lawsuit late last year asking the Supreme Court to invalidate the election results in key battleground states Mr. Biden won, citing groundless accusations of voting improprieties being spread by Mr. Trump.
On Wednesday, Democrats balked when Mr. Rokita, a former Republican congressman, asserted that their proposed changes would “open our elections up to increased voter fraud and irregularities” like the ones that he said had caused widespread voter mistrust in the 2020 outcome.
Senator Jon Ossoff, a freshman Democrat from Georgia, chastised the attorney general, saying he was spreading misinformation and conspiracies.
“I take exception to the comments that you just made, Mr. Rokita, that public concern regarding the integrity of the recent election is born of anything but a deliberate and sustained misinformation campaign led by a vain former president unwilling to accept his own defeat,” Mr. Ossoff said.
Mr. Rokita merely scoffed and repeated an earlier threat to sue to block the legislation from being carried out should it ever become law, a remedy that many Republican-led states would most likely pursue if Democrats were able to win its enactment.
“You are entitled to your opinion, as misinformed as it may be, but I share the opinion of Americans,” Mr. Rokita said.
Sixty-five percent of voters believe the election was free and fair, according to a Morning Consult poll conducted in late January, but only 32 percent of Republicans believe that.