HOUSTON – The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People says its newest battle is really an old one.
This year's NAACP national convention, which kicks off this weekend in Houston, is focusing on voter participation and the civil rights organization's efforts to fight what it sees as restrictive voting laws that have been passed by various states the last few years.
Between 6,000 and 7,000 members are expected to attend the group's 103rd convention. Vice President Joe Biden, Attorney General Eric Holder and Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, are among the scheduled speakers.
The theme of the convention, which starts Saturday and runs through July 12, is "NAACP: Your Power, Your Decision - Vote." NAACP officials said their main priority this year is making sure that everyone, regardless of race, creed or economic status, will have the right to vote during this fall's elections.
Since 2010, at least 10 states, including Texas, have passed laws requiring people to show a government-issued photo identification card when they go to the polls.
Supporters of such laws have said showing an ID will prevent voter fraud. But opponents say requiring an ID could suppress voter turnout among poor, elderly and minority voters who are less likely to have a driver's license or passport.
Leon Russell, vice chairman of the NAACP's national board of directors, compared the recent voting laws to poll taxes or literacy tests from the 19th century that disenfranchised black voters.
"The effort to suppress the vote is not a new thing. It's something that's been around," he said during a news conference Friday. "What we have seen in the last two years though is the most egregious effort to compound and collect every single method that anybody could think of that would discourage someone to vote and put it into a piece of legislation and inflict them on our communities."
Russell said his organization's efforts are not partisan. Voter ID laws are often passed by Republicans and opposed by Democrats.
University of Houston history professor Tyrone Tillery said the issue of battling voter ID laws is one that fits with the NAACP's history of helping disenfranchised voters.
"It plays to their strengths," said Tillery, who specializes in 20th century African-American history and was a former NAACP director in Detroit in 1989.
Russell said the NAACP is focused on working with other civil rights groups in the Hispanic, Asian and gay and lesbian communities.
"We can't just work on behalf of one segment of the population," he said. "Our focus will be the black community. But we can't create anything that impacts only the black community. Our 103-year history shows that when we get legislation adopted, it is policy that has impacted all Americans. That continues to be our purpose."
Other issues NAACP officials plan to discuss at the convention include the federal health care law that was upheld last month by the U.S. Supreme Court and efforts to repeal stand-your-ground laws around the country in the wake of the February fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin. George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, is citing Florida's stand-your-ground law in his defense in the teenager's death.