One-woman democracy machine

Times Staff Writer

Sylvia Levin knows how she’ll celebrate her 90th birthday today.

She’ll travel to Malibu this afternoon, set up her card table and chairs outside the First Bank branch there and spend the next two hours asking passersby at the Malibu Colony Plaza shopping center if they’re registered to vote.

Every Friday is Malibu day for Levin. Saturdays are Venice days. Sundays are spent at the farmer’s market in Westwood Village. Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays, she’s outside the post office at Westwood’s Federal Building.


Six days a week for 34 years Levin has walked or traveled by bus around Los Angeles to sign up people to vote. So far she’s registered more than 46,700. She knows: she’s kept track.

This morning, before traveling to Malibu, Levin will hitch a ride from her Santa Monica home to Los Angeles City Hall, where council members will honor her dedication to the election process.

Levin says the honor has been all hers.

“I want to see everyone who is an American citizen be able to vote,” she explained Thursday afternoon from behind her battered card table outside Westwood’s post office. Postal workers there let her store her table and chairs inside, as do employees of the Malibu bank and the shops in Venice.

“Voting gives you the right to voice what’s in your heart on paper -- on the ballot,” she said. “People who are registering for the first time in their lives leave this table just flying. They know they’ve taken a big step.”

Levin does not get paid for signing up new voters. The days of Los Angeles County deputy registrars receiving a 25-cent stipend for each person registered are long gone.

But no matter. She cannot think of a more rewarding way to spend her days, she says.

“Once a man in Malibu was watching me, and finally he came over and said, ‘You’re serving the public in a very big way. You should be proud of yourself.’ ” Levin said she was so surprised that she wrote down what he said on a scrap of paper that she has saved.

Over the decades she has registered voters at different locations -- outside Canter’s deli in the Fairfax district, in Century City, at UCLA and Santa Monica College and outside Warner Hollywood Studios.

Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl first met her 30 years ago when she signed up voters outside Venice’s Rose Cafe.

“She’s an example of a person who has done more to make democracy work than anybody I know,” said the Westside councilman, who wrote the resolution to be presented this morning.

That Levin takes public transportation to her sign-up sites also impresses Rosendahl. “It tells you that our society must change its attitude toward senior citizens,” he said Thursday.

Levin said she became interested in the get-out-the-vote effort after her son, political consultant and writer Chuck Levin, 60, helped lead a California campaign to register young people after the voting age was lowered to 18 in 1971.

Government experts suggest that the 46,700 voters that Levin has registered are a national record. No state-by-state records are kept, but California is the fastest-growing state and one in which few obstacles are placed in the way of newcomers registering to become voters.

“If she cares enough at age 90 that everyone who is eligible is registered, shouldn’t we all care?” asked Bob Weiner, a veteran Washington political organizer whose work has included a stint as chief of staff of the House Aging Committee. He met Levin through her son.

“There is no one who has done what Sylvia Levin has done. It’s been very exciting to watch,” Weiner said.

Back in Westwood, Levin loudly urges potential voters to spend a few minutes with her. “Are you registered?” she shouted in a voice that still has a hint of the New Jersey accent that commands attention. A single mother of two, she moved to L.A. in the 1940s to work in an aircraft plant. Her daughter, Susan, 58, is a special education teacher from Culver City.

Although she once registered 60 new voters one day in 1996, now she averages about four sign-ups a day. She won’t say whether she’s registered more Republicans or Democrats.

“All parties are welcome. Everyone is important,” she said.

“Are you registered?”