Republican officials in more than 30 states have approved new restrictions on voting in recent years, including seven states where Americans will be required to show photo ID before they’re allowed to participate in an election. It’s a little something called the “war on voting“; it may keep 5 million eligible voters from casting a ballot in 2012; and as Richard Hasen, an election law expert at UC Irvine, explained this week, the new Republican rules “could easily decide the outcome” of next year’s election.

The significance of this is not lost on the DNC and President Obama’s re-election team.

The Obama re-election campaign has quietly opened a counteroffensive against Republican-backed changes to election laws that Democrats say will suppress votes for their candidates and limit their get-out-the-vote drives.

The effort, led by former White House counsel Robert Bauer, prompted the suspension of an Ohio law limiting early voting. Campaign officials produced educational materials to counter a Wisconsin law that requires voters to produce photo I.D.s — but disallows those used by Wisconsin colleges.

By this spring, the Obama re-election campaign will mount what Mr. Bauer called an unprecedented “voter protection” effort, fielding thousands of volunteers in battleground states to help navigate new election laws, months earlier than past efforts.

In states where new restrictions are already in place, Democratic officials have limited options. Some legal challenges are already underway, but much of the counter-offensive seems built around a public-awareness campaign.

Indeed, to a very real extent, the “war on voting” has become the basis for new Democratic activism. The WSJ reported, “Rod Smith, chairman of the Florida Democratic Party, said his office coordinates daily with the Obama campaign on how to encourage older voters, college students and African Americans to vote by absentee ballot. The message is: ‘They believe they can keep you from voting. Don’t let it happen.’”

But let’s not overlook the punch-line.

Republicans see no precedent for a presidential re-election campaign to go this far to counter laws passed by state legislatures and signed by governors. “It’s somewhat concerning that the president’s own team is seeking to undermine laws that ensure only registered voters actually vote,” said Sean Spicer, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee.

Actually, what’s “somewhat concerning” is a national Republican campaign to rig an election cycle by restricting voting rights, relying on efforts that look “an awful lot like methods pioneered by the white supremacists from another era that achieved the similar results.”

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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.