Among the most disturbing and under-reported developments of the past year has been the attempts by GOP-controlled legislatures throughout the country to pass new laws that make it more difficult to register new voters, restrict or eliminate early voting and otherwise impede Americans’ access to the voting booth.

These efforts, according to the Brennan Center at New York University law school, “could make it significantly harder for more than five million eligible voters to cast ballots in 2012.” And it probably won’t surprise you to learn that those voters will be, in addition to students and the elderly, disproportionately African-American and Hispanic.

Republicans insist that these efforts are necessary to combat what they say is a threat looming over our democracythe specter of rampant “voter fraud.” But the most serious kind of voter fraud, where actual votes are being cast by or on behalf of people who are ineligible, is almost nonexistent in the United States. In other words, the GOP has launched a wide-ranging attack on a problem that doesn’t exist.

These voter suppression efforts intensified during the presidency of George W. Bush, when groups like the now-defunct ACORN registered significant numbers of low-income and minority voters who were likely to vote Democratic. One common allegation against ACORN was that it committed massive voter registration fraud, whereby lists of new registrants submitted by ACORN volunteers included names like Mickey Mouse. Of course, as has been pointed out many times, “registration fraud” is essentially irrelevant to the issue of voting integrity. After all, Mickey Mouse isn’t going to show up at the polls.

But beginning in 2002, under then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, the Bush administration made voting fraud a “high priority” for government attorneys. In fact, the Bush administration’s focus on this phantom menace led to one of the significant scandals of his presidency, when a wave of U.S. attorneys were fired for various failures of sufficient political loyalty. One such breach of loyalty was the refusal of some of these attorneys to bow to administration pressure to aggressively prosecute bogus voter fraud cases.

The actual evidence overwhelmingly shows that, when it comes to voter fraud, Republicans are crying wolf. Back in 2000, for example, when John Ashcroft lost a hotly contested Senate race in Missouri, his allies screamed foul play. Then-Missouri Secretary of State (and later governor) Matt Blunt insisted that up to 1,000 ballots had been illegally cast, out of more than 2.3 million total votes. But a subsequent Justice Department probe found zero illegally cast ballots. Instead it discovered that 50,000 voters had been improperly purged from the voting rolls in St. Louis.

A major Justice Department probe from 2002 to 2007 failed to prosecute a single case in which a person went to the polls to impersonate an eligible voter, a main thrust of the new Republican anti-voting laws.

In Kansas, Secretary of State Kris Kobach has launched a successful crusade to restrict voting by insisting that “the illegal registration of alien voters has become pervasive,” claiming 67 non-citizens were illegally registered to vote in Kansas (out of more than 1.7 million total registered voters). But Kobach’s claim has since been debunked, and the state has prosecuted one case of voter fraud in the past five years.

A study on the 2002 and 2004 elections in Ohio, conducted by the Coalition on Homelessness & Housing in Ohio and the League of Women Voters Coalition, found that four of roughly 9 million votes were cast illegally in the ways described above. This finding led Stephen Colbert to quip that “our democracy is under siege from an enemy so small it could be hiding anywhere.” As election law expert Tovah Andrea Wang has concluded, “Law enforcement statistics, reports from elections officials and widespread research have proved that voter fraud at the polling place is virtually nonexistent.”

Of course, you already know that the Republicans aren’t actually concerned with “voter integrity.” Instead, as former President Bill Clinton put it recently, their goal is to make the 2012 electorate look more like the 2010 electorate than the 2008 one. Another way of saying this is that the GOP wants to ensure, to the degree possible, that only “real Americans” get to vote.

The GOP’s anti-voting campaign has attempted to accomplish this goal through a variety of means. In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott passed “emergency legislation” this year that revoked the voting rights of nearly 100,000 individuals who had previously been convicted of felonies but had served their time and had their eligibility restored. Scott also signed legislation putting onerous new restrictions on independent organizations seeking to register new voters. Penalties for failing to comply with the new lawwhich include possible sanctions for handing in late paperworkcould result in the imposition of large fines and the threat of criminal convictions. Venerable voter registration organizations, including the League of Women Voters, have ceased operations in the state as a result of the new law. And prior to passage of the law, there were no reported cases of registration fraud in connection with voter registration drives.

Another common approach has been to require that voters show a valid photo ID before they can vote. This may not seem like a big deal, but it’s worth noting that no state in the country imposed such requirements until 2006. And it’s estimated that perhaps 10 percent of eligible voters in the United States do not have a valid government-issued photo ID of the sort required under some of these new laws; a significantly higher percentage of African-Americans and Latinos do not possess such an ID.

In South Carolina, which passed new photo voter ID legislation this year, an estimated 179,000 eligible voters in the state currently lack the approved identification. States that pass photo ID voting laws are required to make such IDs available for free. But obtaining the requisite identification typically requires an original birth certificate or a passport, and these cost money. Again, this may seem like small change to many, but it is a certainty that these rules will disproportionately disenfranchise the poor, the very elderly and minorities. This is, of course, the point.

States have also attempted to restrict ballot access unscrupulously by stipulating what kinds of photo ID are valid. In Wisconsin, for example, Republican Gov. Scott Walker signed photo ID legislation that would allow students attending state universities to use student ID cards. However, the legislation mandated that those IDs would only be valid if they included information that no state university in Wisconsin currently uses on its student IDs. In Texas, similar new laws would allow individuals to use concealed handgun licenses as proper photo ID but not state university student ID cardsnot that Texas Republicans are more interested in letting gun owners vote than university students.

Finally, the new raft of laws also includes significant restrictions on early voting, including Sunday voting in the weeks leading up to Election Day. Florida, Maine and Ohio are among the states that have enacted such restrictions, and these new limitations on early voting will disproportionately affect African-Americans, who voted early, including on Sundays, in large numbers in 2008. No credible evidence associates early voting with election fraud.

Obama’s Justice Department may yet overturn or modify some of these laws. But the evidence is overwhelming: The concern over fraud is a complete fabrication, a desperate and dismal cover for an odious effort to disenfranchise minority voters and those of lesser means.