DOWNTOWN — Sylvia Levin, a Santa Monica resident who set records registering Californians to vote, died Thursday in Los Angeles of complications from a stroke. She was 91.
In the last 36 years Levin registered more than 47,000 California residents, an all-time high in the state of California.
The Brooklyn native was born Sept. 14, 1917 and lived there much of her life before she relocated to Santa Monica.
Her campaign as a deputy voter registrar began outside of Canter’s Deli in the Fairfax District and has extended throughout the Westside. She spent six days a week commuting by bus to reach various locations — the Federal Building in Westwood, Malibu post office, Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Venice and the Westwood Village Farmers’ Market.
Following her schedule religiously, she would store her belongings at local establishments and set up her card table, topped with signs that read “Register to vote here.”
“It’s not the same if I walk by and she’s not sitting there,” Robert Neely, a worker in the federal building, said in an interview with the Daily Press in 2007. “There’s something missing when she’s not out here.”
For those like Neely who regularly stopped to chat with her at her booth, that something is now permanently missing.
Levin never discriminated against voters based on party lines and welcomed anyone who wanted to vote. Though politics were not allowed at the table, the die-hard Yankees fan never passed up an opportunity to make a few cracks about the Dodgers with friendly passerby.
Many throughout the county recognized Levin has an important contributor to voter efforts.
“I think more than anything she’s an example of what one person can do to make a difference when they choose to channel their efforts toward one thing,” said Dean Logan, Los Angeles County registrar-recorder/county clerk.
She was certainly recognized for that effort. In 1996 she was given a plaque from Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky for her “outstanding service” and inducted into the Voter Participation Hall of Fame in 2001.
On her 90th birthday in 2007 Levin was honored by the Los Angeles City Council in honor of her 34 years of volunteer service and California record for registering voters. The resolution, proposed by Los Angeles Councilman Bill Rosendahl, recognized “the appreciation felt by so many thousands of people ho have been touched by [her] tireless enthusiasm for voting and who have applauded her commitment.”
“She was an amazing lady. She was actually a huge inspiration for me,” said Rosendahl, who met Levin 30 years ago as she registered people on the street. “When you talk about making democracy work and making it a participatory experience, she embodied it every single day.”
Rosendahl said he plans to adjourn today’s City Council meeting in Levin’s memory.
Where once Levin would average 60 registrations a day, the number dropped to about four a day in recent years. But that didn’t stop her from scouting for potential voters along the streets of Los Angeles.
“I’m still going strong and I will continue to go strong,” she told the Daily Press just after her 90th birthday.
Levin’s son Chuck Levin, also a Santa Monica resident, estimated that she spoke with more than 470,000 people since she began in 1973. Levin first became politically involved because her son, creator of the First Vote, introduced her to the importance of the democratic process.
“I’m not sure whether mother or son influenced the other more on the importance of grassroots political involvement and registering people to vote,” said Robert Weiner, a family friend and a former chief of staff of the U.S. House Aging Committee.
Weiner, who remembered eating Levin’s special eggplant Parmesan at her Santa Monica home, recently spent time registering voters with her outside the Westwood Post Office.
“Mrs. Levin really believed that once you give people the power to vote, they have it forever,” he said.
Chuck Levin said his mother’s four decades of service fulfilled her.
“She lived a long and full life of adventure and grace, of simplicity and openness, of love and hope,” he said.
In addition to her son, she is survived by daughter Susan Levin and sisters Dottie Sadowsky of Manhattan and Daisy Neustadt of Willingboro, N.J.
The family is holding private funeral services and a public tribute and memorial is being planned for September. Donations on her behalf can be made to the First Vote, P.O. Box 241870, Los Angeles, CA 90024.