“The right to vote is the foundation of any democracy,” said The New York Times in an editorial, but for 5.8 million American citizens with past convictions for felonies, that right has been withheld for far too long. In an “unflinching speech” to a civil rights conference, Attorney General Eric Holder last week denounced the patchwork of state laws that restrict convicted felons from voting after they’re released from jail as unjust and “profoundly outdated,” and called for their repeal. He’s right: Once people have paid their debt to society, “the restoration of the right to vote should be automatic.” But it’s not. Four states bar ex-felons from voting for life; Florida denies them voting rights for five years; other states require released felons to pass through complicated processes and waiting periods to re-register. The laws that exclude ex-felons have an ugly history, said Jamelle Bouie in TheDailyBeast.com.Most were passed back in the days of Jim Crow, with the goal—often openly stated—of impeding black people’s access to the ballot box. Even today, these laws have a “hugely disproportionate effect on African-Americans,” with more than 13 percent of black men barred from voting.

Holder should put away his race card, said Jason Riley in The Wall Street Journal. To state the obvious, these laws don’t target people based on skin color, but solely on whether or not they’ve committed a serious crime. If this burden falls disproportionately on the African-American population, that’s only because “a disproportionate number of blacks are felons. The problem is black criminality, not racist laws.” Not everyone gets to vote in a democracy, said Roger Clegg in NationalReview.com. We don’t let children vote, or the mentally incompetent, and the logic for denying felons the vote is just as strong: “If you aren’t willing to follow the law, then you can hardly claim a role in making the law for everyone else.”

Holder’s real motive here is partisan, said Peter Kirsanow, also in NationalReview.com. Democrats want to give felons the right to elect the next president because they know it would be a huge boon for the party of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. A study has found that felons who recover the right to vote “exercise it overwhelmingly for Democrats—at a rate approaching 70 percent.” If Florida’s felons had been allowed to vote in the 2000 election, George W. Bush would have lost the state to Al Gore by more than 60,000 votes. Gore would have become president, and “An Inconvenient Truth would never have been made.”

Now who’s playing politics? said Steve Chapman in the Chicago Tribune. The issue here isn’t which party would benefit, but simple fairness and smart public policy. Ours is an optimistic nation that believes in redemption. “We want ex-convicts to give up crime,’’ and become “upstanding members of their communities.” Denying them the basic right to vote sends a strong message that they don’t belong in civil society. Is that really in the public interest? I can see suspending a felon’s voting rights for “a probationary period” after release, said Kevin Drum in MotherJones.com, but permanently barring him from voting is indefensible. In a free country, “the right to vote” is as important as the rights to free speech and a fair trial. Such fundamental rights should not be taken away.