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Clinton, Sanders vie as voting rights champions

Sanders called Republicans "political cowards" for trying to restrict voting, while Clinton slammed Alabama officials for making it harder to get a voter ID.

As Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders court black voters in South Carolina, they’re competing to stress their commitments to voting rights.

"Maybe this is personal because I run for office. Sometimes you lose, sometimes you win,” Sanders, a U.S. senator from Vermont, told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow at Friday night’s Democratic forum from Rock Hill, S.C, when asked about Republican efforts to restrict voting. “It has never occurred to me as a candidate to figure out a way to deny the vote to people because they might vote against me. People who do that are political cowards. They're afraid of a fair election.”

WATCH: Sanders: US has a voting rights crisis

Sanders called the GOP-led push to make voting harder a “crisis,” and said there might be a need for a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to vote.

“What Republicans are doing is so un-American, so outrageous. It is literally beyond belief,” Sanders said. “They're political cowards, and if they can't face a free election, they should get another job.”

Not to be outdone, Clinton used a town hall event with a largely African-American crowd Saturday at Claflin University to promote her own record on the issue.

Clinton, the clear front-runner in the Democratic race, blasted the Supreme Court for its 2013 ruling weakening the Voting Rights Act, saying the justices were “sending message to leaders that they could begin to try to find new ways to interfere in the right to vote.”

And she criticized Alabama officials for a plan unveiled last month to shut down drivers license offices in several predominantly black counties, which could make it harder to get a voter ID, as the state now requires voters to do.

Clinton implied the move was a deliberate effort to disenfranchise Alabama's black community. “I spent 18 years in Arkansas,” she said, “and one of my favorite philosophies is, if you find a turtle on a fence post, it didn't get there by accident.”

RELATED: 3 big takeaways from MSNBC's Democratic forum

There was even a subtle effort by Clinton to one-up her Democratic rival on voting issues. She said she was the “first person” to back the idea of automatically registering people to vote when they turn 18—a policy she endorsed in a major speech on voting rights in June, when she also called for a minimum of 20 days of early voting nationwide. A week later, Sanders introduced legislation in the Senate aimed at establishing automatic voter registration.

In looking to expand access to the ballot, both candidates offer a sharp contrast with the GOP’s leading contenders. As a state legislator in Florida, Sen. Marco Rubio voted for a bill to restrict early voting hours, and he has downplayed the impact of voter ID laws, asking, “What’s the big deal?” Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas has introduced legislation that would require people to show proof of citizenship when registering to vote, making voter registration drives much harder, and he supported the challenge that weakened the Voting Rights Act, as well as Texas's strict voter ID law.