The excitement was palpable as hundreds of students tried to cram into a classroom at Howard University on Thursday night. Just 48 hours earlier, the word had gone out via bullhorn and e-mail: "Please bring ideas to help lead all souls to the polls."

The room inside Alain Locke Hall had been reserved in anticipation of a smaller group, perhaps as a result of recent surveys showing that blacks ages 18 to 35 vote in far fewer numbers than those 50 years and older.

But before the night was over, the crowd of students had swelled so much that the meeting had to be moved into another building with ballroom-size accommodations.

Jovon McCalester, a 19-year-old political science major, was among those who heeded the call.

"We all want change, but many students find it hard to use their personal time to make change," she said. "Well, more of us are beginning to realize that to make change, you have to make the time."

The gathering was called for by Black Youth Vote Coalition, a Washington- based group that aims to raise political consciousness of black people by reminding them of the importance of voting.

It is no small task.

"When we talk about the youth vote in general, it's low," said Jonathan Hutto, a Black Youth Vote advisory board member and former president of Howard's student association. "But the black youth vote is really low. Only 36 percent of blacks 18 to 35 are registered to vote, and only 25 percent of those registered actually go to the polls."

A recent survey by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found a significant shift in the political ideology of younger black voters, with more of them becoming less likely to identify themselves as Democrats. Indeed, a majority of those surveyed said they were more impressed by Republican Secretary of State Colin Powell than civil rights icon Jesse Jackson.

But that Republican tilt probably won't be felt in Tuesday's election, said David A. Bositis, who directed the survey, because, again, that group does not vote in large numbers.

The Howard students beg to differ. If they have anything to do with it, the black youth turnout will be markedly increased for Tuesday's election, with special emphasis on getting voters to the polls in Maryland and the District.

As to which way the newly registered will vote, that's their business. The Black Youth Vote Coalition is nonpartisan.

"We just hope that everybody understands the issues," said Rashida Rogers, 21, who is studying to become a physician's assistant. "On campus, the students are very aware politically. But we need to reach out to the community and make sure they understand how the election could affect health care, education, justice, gun safety and the prospect of war."

As for those survey results showing young blacks prefer Powell to Jackson, Rogers said: "I became politically active after hearing Jesse Jackson speak at a youth forum on campus. He made us aware that if we cared about peace, freedom and justice, we cannot afford to sit on the sidelines. We had to get involved."

And they are. Having already registered more than 3,000 new voters since August, the young activists plan to hold a 7 a.m. Election Day rally on campus, encourage other students to vote and provide transportation to the polls.

Brandi Sims, a 17-year-old freshman legal communications major, arrived at the volunteers meeting after spending much of the day working for a Howard student who is running for a seat on the District's Advisory Neighborhood Commission. After only two months in college, she is serving as head of her candidate's constituent services office.

"I didn't expect to be a part of something where people are so dedicated," she said. "We are quite organized for our age."

Jovon McCalester works for the same campaign as a research analyst, doing feasibility studies on the programs that residents say they want while making sure that campaign finance laws are obeyed.

"We are bringing to politics that fresh, youthful look," she said. "You know, we are that group that thinks we can change the world. And you know what? We can."

E-mail: milloyc@washpost.com