Cecelia Aldridge, a student at a community college, has never voted before, although she has been eligible for two years. But about three months ago she was walking in her Southeast Washington neighborhood when a campaign worker for Jesse L. Jackson ''caught me,'' she says, and registered her on the spot.
While she says she ''just never had the time to vote'' in the past, she has no doubt that she will cast her ballot for Mr. Jackson next Tuesday in the District of Columbia Democratic presidential primary.
The young black student is part of the voter registration explosion here that has added 31,000 people to the rolls since last fall, two-thirds of them in the month of March. ''It's the largest increase in such a short time'' since the capital's residents gained the right to vote in presidential elections in 1964, says Joe Baxter, the District's registrar of voters.
He gives much of the credit to the Jackson campaign. In fact, the campaign claims direct credit for 10,000 new voters, rounded up by volunteers in a city where registration is made easy because forms may be mailed to officials. The Jackson forces are counting on breaking the turnout records on primary day.
If they succeed in bringing out citizens in this 70 percent black city, that should produce the clearest victory yet for Jackson. His campaign operations chief in the District, Chuck Moore, talks of the possibility of a clean sweep for the District's 19 delegates - 11 elected in the primary and the rest chosen by local officials.
If Walter Mondale has captured the Democratic establishment in other areas, Washington is clearly Jackson territory. Mayor Marion Berry was one of the first major black leaders to jump aboard the Jackson ''rainbow express,'' and it was here that Jackson announced his candidacy for president.
More than half the city's council members are backing Jackson, as well as the District's Democratic congressional delegate, Walter E. Fauntroy.
''It's a formidable array against us,'' concedes George A. Dalley, deputy manager for the Mondale national campaign and organizer for the Washington effort, one which he acknowledges is limited. Even his goals are modest.
''I'm not predicting victory, but a surprise,'' says Mr. Dalley, who discounts talk of a Jackson shutout, which would mean holding other candidates to under about 20 percent in the primary.
Hopes for both Mondale and the third major candidate, Gary Hart, rest in the District's northwest neighborhoods, which have the greatest numbers of whites. Not only does the area include Mondale's longtime family home, but also the young professionals who have boosted the campaign of Colorado Senator Hart.
However, in most of the neighborhoods of the capital, sympathy for Jackson is overwhelming, and the challenge is less to win over voters than to get them to the polls.
The city's southeast side, with its rundown housing projects and high unemployment, has never paid much attention to elections. Next week will be different, promises William Lochridge, a biology teacher who helped organize the Ward Eight Task Force for Education and Political Empowerment. The group was inspired by the victory of Harold Washington as the first black mayor of Chicago , says the young teacher. Now it has turned its energy toward Jackson.
''I helped register 500 people,'' says Mr. Lochridge. The city's registrar confirms a huge jump of 20 to 25 percent new voters in his ward.
But will they vote?
''We're sure they'll vote,'' says Lochridge, because on election day ''we'll give them a call, knock on their doors - whatever we have to do to get them out.''
In his community, some who plan to vote concede that Jackson will not win the Democratic presidential nomination in the end. What counts is that for the first time, they can vote for a black candidate for president who is taken seriously.
James Artis, a semiretired teacher's aide, holds that if he votes for Jackson , his ballot won't be wasted. ''It will show how far a black can go in politics.''