Color the Iraq election deep purple

Will democracy prove as indelible as its inky symbol?

Object Lesson

February 06, 2005|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,SUN STAFF

Last week's news was saturated, indelibly, in purple ink.

First there were images of Iraqi men and women leaving polling stations, waving freshly stained purple fingers to prove they'd cast a ballot.

Then, at Wednesday night's State of the Union address, the cameras briefly focused on Iraqi human rights worker Safia Taleb al-Suhail while she stabbed the first finger on her right hand proudly in the air. The tip was as purple as a pinot noir.

Some lawmakers in the chamber held up their own index fingers. A group of them had inked their own fingers in a show of solidarity with Iraqi voters.

In the snap of a finger, the stained digit has become the new icon of Iraqi freedom, the Lance Armstrong bracelet of fledgling democracy.

Perhaps most surprised at this turn of events is the man behind the ink, Robert Dyck.

Reached for comment at his Ottawa office, Dyck called out to a colleague: "Hey! This is a big story in America!"

Dyck (pronounced Dick) heads a firm called CODE Inc., which has supplied election materials to developing countries since 1988. Haitians, Ethiopians, Liberians and Yugoslavs have all dipped digits in his indelible ink. All told, the 59-year-old entrepreneur has been involved with 106 elections in 62 countries. None, though, has ever brought his humble product this kind of attention.

The ink, mixed in Ontario, includes a secret ingredient that binds it to human skin and nails. "Nobody's figured out a way to get our ink off yet," he said. A few days after exposure, the dyed skin sloughs off, but the nail must grow out completely before the stain is gone. This takes between two to three weeks.

The ink doesn't go on very dark: "Some people wonder if it is on," Dyck said. But when exposed to sunlight, the pigments become much more pronounced.

The permanence of his ink can cut two ways.

"Some people risk their lives if they have ink on their finger that they can't get off," he said. In fact, Iraqi insurgents had threatened to seek out purple-fingered voters for retribution.

To prevent this type of targeting, Dyck sells an invisible ink that can be seen only under ultraviolet light. But because people have figured out how to remove the invisible ink, it's not as secure.

Dyck says he supplied all of the ink for the Iraqi election, including to those Iraqis who voted abroad. He sells it in 8.5-ounce bottles. The bottles fit in the palm of a hand and each is filled with an ink-impregnated sponge. Voters plunge their fingers into the sponge and the mark is made. Each bottle can ink roughly 500 fingers.

He wouldn't say exactly how much the ink costs, but it is less than $10 a bottle. "I don't sell the cheapest ink," he said. "I sell ink that really works."

And though the ink is getting the most attention, Dyck was quick to point out that his company sells a full array of election material. He also printed Iraqi ballots, provided polling posters and crowd-control tape.

While Dyck admits making a good living selling this stuff to would-be democracies, he says he's far from an "election profiteer."

Seventy-five percent of the profits generated by his eight-person operation is used to promote literacy programs in Third World countries. In fact, a sizable chunk of it ends up in Baltimore, where it funds the work of the International Book Bank, an organization that provides free textbooks to developing countries.

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