It’s not unusual to find a fair amount of 2012 optimism in Democratic circles. The economy is improving; Republican overreach is causing voters to recoil; and President Obama will be on the top of the ballot again, giving Dems a boost they lacked in 2010.

But for all that cautious confidence, it’s worth noting that Dems can’t win if their supporters can’t vote. And with that in mind, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee reported this week on Republican efforts in state legislatures to rewrite voting laws “to make exercising one’s right to cast a ballot more difficult.”

After examining the plethora of bills introduced in statehouses this year that, among other things, would reduce poll hours and require voters to show photo ID, it seems clear that Republicans are trying to make it harder for certain groups to vote. The Advancement Project, an advocacy group of civil rights attorneys, called the push “the largest legislative effort to scale back voting rights in a century.”

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), Republican legislators have introduced bills that would diminish access to the voting booth in over 40 states. All of these Republican proposals focus on one apparent goal: restrict ballot access and shrink the electorate — often in ways that would decrease Democratic votes.

Many of the proposals are in the form of voter ID legislation, which would require potential voters to present specified forms of identification in order to cast a ballot. Republicans supporting these measures claim they’re necessary to prevent “voter fraud.”

Too bad that “voter fraud” isn’t a problem that actually exists.

By all appearances, GOP efforts fall under the “When in doubt, disenfranchise” category. The Republican-led efforts aren’t addressing actual problems with the integrity of the voting process, unless you consider likely Democrats participating in elections to be a “problem.”

Of particular interest are voter-ID efforts, which are likely to disproportionately affect African Americans, the poor, and voters under the age of 30.

In other words, state Republican officials are targeting — without cause — the constituencies least likely to vote Republican. What a coincidence.

But there are related GOP efforts to stand in the precinct door. Patrick Caldwell has reported on Texas Republicans’ proposals designed to limit access to the polls, including absurd new restrictions on registering new voters. There are also measures in states like New Hampshire to block college students from registering in their adopted home states because, as one prominent GOP leader put it, “Voting as a liberal. That’s what kids do.”

We’re talking about a systematic effort, which is unfolding nationwide for a reason. The easiest way to win an election has nothing to do with candidates, fundraising, or grassroots operations. It’s to stack the deck long before the election — rigging the system so that those most likely to vote the “wrong” way simply don’t get to participate. We saw some of this during the Bush era, relying on odious tactics like “voter caging,” but the strategy is clearly expanding and intensifying.

Ideally, if Republicans are so panicky about losing elections, they should field better candidates and adopt a more sensible policy agenda, not push schemes to block Americans from voting. Indeed, Republicans routinely pull a lot of stunts, but few are as offensive as these anti-voting tactics. It’s one thing to lie one’s way through a campaign; it’s more damaging to the integrity of the country to stop people who disagree with you from even having a say in the process.

In a close election, where a percentage point or two can help dictate the future of the country, just how damaging can these tactics be? I guess we’ll find out soon enough.

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.