Indelible Ink in Elections: Mitigating Risks of COVID-19 Transmission While Maintaining Effectiveness

Indelible Ink in Elections: Mitigating Risks of COVID-19 Transmission While Maintaining Effectiveness

April 16, 2020, 12:34 p.m.

Originally published on ifes.org on April 15, 2020. 

by Dr. Staffan Darnolf, Dr. Fernanda Buril and Meredith Applegate

The purple fingers of voters around the world have become almost synonymous with the hope for transitional elections and more democratic forms of governance. Although it has great symbolic value, indelible ink is primarily used to deter electoral fraud. More than 90 countries have used indelible ink –also known as electoral ink – as a way to ensure that voters cannot cast multiple ballots. Indelible ink sometimes complements or substitutes other anti-fraud measures, such as verifying voters’ identities using official identification documents and checking voters against a voter registry. However, ink is not a panacea for electoral fraud. On numerous occasions, the credibility of elections has been called into question due to real or perceived problems with the effectiveness of the indelible ink, such as in elections in Afghanistan in 2004, in Nigeria in 2007 and in Uganda in 2016. In some instances, poll workers have not applied the ink correctly or used enough of it. Ink quality is also a common problem: for example, when expired ink is used.

Indelible ink, which can be applied with a brush, marker pen, spray or by dipping voters’ fingers in a bottle, contains silver nitrate, a chemical that temporarily stains the skin and fingernails. Its ability to stain the finger for a sufficient period of time – generally more than 12 hours – is highly dependent on the concentration of silver nitrate, how it is applied and how long it remains on the skin and fingernail before excessive ink is wiped off. Hand-sanitizing procedures before and/or after the application of indelible ink, recommended to prevent the spread of coronavirus, could also affect the product’s effectiveness.

Even though a large and growing number of countries are postponing elections due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, some countries still intend to move forward with in-person voting – most with the introduction of several mitigating actions. Frequent and thorough handwashing is one of the most prominent recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other public health authorities to mitigate the risk of coronavirus transmission. Due to the COVID-19’s exceptional rates of transmission, several countries are implementing protocols that include hand sanitizing when entering and exiting public buildings, including polling stations. With this guidance in mind and given indelible ink’s widespread use as a deterrent to electoral fraud – and iconic role in elections in newer democracies – this brief presents some factors election management bodies (EMBs) should consider when organizing elections that use indelible ink during the COVID-19 pandemic.

These recommendations are informed by discussions with several indelible ink manufacturers, specifically on the best methods for EMBs to maintain the effectiveness of indelible ink even after introducing one of the three stringent hand-cleaning protocols for voters entering and departing polling stations. See below for details regarding the different hand-cleaning protocols.


Indelible ink contains several different chemicals, including biocides and 40-45 percent alcohol. As there is no evidence yet that the biocides in indelible ink will kill the coronavirus, voters should thoroughly clean their hands before dipping their fingers in the ink bottle or having the ink applied to them. Based on the responses received from indelible ink manufacturers, EMBs that use the ink product can apply three primary protocols:

  • Soap and Water – Voters should wash their hands thoroughly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds and then completely dry their hands before ink application for better results. As long as voters allow the ink to dry completely, washing their hands again with water and soap while departing the polling station does not undermine its effectiveness.

  • Minimum 60 Percent Alcohol Solution – Voters should use at least 60 percent alcohol solution to sanitize their hands prior to ink application and allow hands to completely dry for better results. If the alcohol solution is used after ink application, it should be noted that some manufacturers reported a reduction of the dye residue when alcohol was applied 10 minutes to five hours post-application; while the stain is not removed from the skin or fingernail, it may be less clearly visible.

  • 0.05 Percent Chlorine Solution – Although not the preferred method for hand hygiene given its lower effectiveness in comparison to the abovementioned options, chlorine solution has been used especially by some West African EMBs as it is readily available. These EMBs are also familiar with chlorine’s disinfecting capability as they used it to combat the Ebola virus during recent outbreaks. The World Health Organization has noted, however, that respiratory symptoms have been reported in patients, health workers and other users as a consequence of exposure to bleach and chlorine solutions used for environmental decontamination, though at a higher percentage of chlorine than the 0.05 percent required for hand sanitizing.

    When using chlorine solutions as hand sanitizers, voters should wash their hands for at least 40 to 60 seconds. As with the two previous protocols, voters should allow their hands to completely dry after using a chlorine solution before ink application. If the chlorine solution is used to sanitize hands after ink application, it should be noted that some manufacturers reported that the ink was notably darker or lighter than normal when chlorine was used five seconds post-application. To avoid any potential negative interaction between the chlorine and the ink chemicals, EMBs must test the products and ensure their chemical composition does not negatively affect the ink’s effectiveness, and voters should allow at least five seconds after ink application before sanitizing their hands again.


Regardless of which cleaning method is used, some other general guidelines should be considered:

  • Drying Hands Prior to Ink Application – Voters should have enough time or sufficient supplies – e.g., disposable towels – to ensure their hands are completely dry before ink application. Communal towels are not recommended, as they might add another risk of contagion.

  • Drying Hands After Ink Application – Communal towels are not recommended to wipe off excessive ink, as they might add yet another risk of contagion. If EMBs are using paper towels or disinfecting wipes, they must also provide safe receptacles or trash cans where the used supplies will be disposed and safely removed from the premises.

  • Applying Ink – EMBs should be mindful of who is applying the ink to the voters. If poll workers are responsible for applying the ink, they should be provided with appropriate personal protective equipment. If the voter is instead required to mark the finger by dipping it in ink bottles, polling staff must issue special instructions to ensure proper application of the ink. EMBs should also keep in mind when procuring indelible ink that some applicators are more convenient for self-service than others – for instance, while ink bottles allow for poll workers to not touch the product or the voter, a brush or marker pen will require some direct handling by polling staff.

  • Voter Education – EMBs need to ensure that voters understand new hygiene procedures, the inking process and the importance of complying with instructions. EMB education efforts could include, for example, special posters outside polling stations and public service announcements that detail hand-washing procedures, as well as the self-inking process should an EMB choose that option. Voter education efforts should be made to reach out to all citizens, including voters with disabilities and those with low literacy levels. Graphics and visuals should be used when possible and, if a poster is used in a polling station, an audio option should be available for people who are blind or have low vision, such as verbal information from a poll worker.

  • Training – Polling staff will lead hygiene efforts in the polling station, including in relation to the application of ink. A specific chapter with instructions on handwashing – both for the poll workers themselves and instructions they should give to voters – and ink application should be included in polling station manuals and emphasized comprehensively in training efforts. Polling staff should be fully aware of the necessity, for example, of ink drying completely before hands are washed again.

  • Electoral Operations and Budgeting – EMBs should carefully review their operational plans and budgets to make sure that necessary supplies for hygiene and ink application – particularly if changing to a self-inking method – are included in their procurement and distribution plans and sufficiently funded. Adding steps to the polling process, such as poll workers informing voters about new health protocols, voters washing their hands and potentially having to ink their own fingers, could impact the number of voters each polling station can process during regular voting hours. The EMB can either extend the normal voting hours or reduce the number of voters allocated to a polling station.

  • Countering Disinformation – EMBs should be prepared to counter disinformation about the use of ink, particularly in relation to any changes in the application process. EMBs should have an active communication strategy in place that demonstrates that handwashing does not diminish the effectiveness of ink, and actively work to counter messaging – particularly online – that is not factual.

  • Regulatory Framework – EMBs should review the regulatory framework in their countries to ensure that any necessary amendments are made to change the application of ink or increased hygiene procedures.

The International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) will continue to monitor product tests, communicate with indelible ink manufacturers and health authorities and update this piece as newer evidence becomes available.

For more information, read IFES’ white paper Indelible Ink in Elections, which outlines how finger inking is treated in electoral legislation, the role of EMBs and procedural, practical, technical and country-specific considerations for the use and optimization of indelible ink.

Dr. Staffan Darnolf is the senior global electoral operations and administration advisor, Dr. Fernanda Buril is a senior research officer and Meredith Applegate is a program adviser for Ukraine at IFES.

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