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This Mexican scientist invented the 'mark of democracy' used across the world

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Some ninety million people will vote tomorrow in Mexico. After they cast their ballots, a poll worker will dab their finger with a chemical, and that spot on their finger will turn sepia. It has come to be known as the mark of democracy. NPR's Eyder Peralta spoke to the man who makes that so-called indelible ink.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINE RUNNING)

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: When we get to his lab at the National Polytechnic Institute, Dr. Filiberto Vazquez Davila, who is 80, stands in front of a mound of empty bottles of voting ink.

FILIBERTO VAZQUEZ DAVILA: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: "We've shipped two trailers full of ink for 98 million Mexicans."

Wow.

VAZQUEZ DAVILA: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: "And I'm going to paint all of them," he says. Vazquez says his obsession with ink started in 1987 when a newspaper publisher told him Mexico was importing all the ink they used. A few days later, he showed up with a few buckets of ink, and the press operator threw it into the machines.

VAZQUEZ DAVILA: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: As the press got running, he remembers thinking, "I hope I don't mess up a machine."

VAZQUEZ DAVILA: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: And then a worker brought him the final product...

VAZQUEZ DAVILA: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: ...The front page in full color. He was in love. And when the electoral commission announced a contest in 1993 for someone to create an indelible ink to use for elections, he was the only one of 53 people to turn in a sample that was not ink.

VAZQUEZ DAVILA: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: He calls his assistant.

VAZQUEZ DAVILA: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: He wants to test the indelible liquid on me.

And it looks clear as it goes on.

This, he says, is a secret formula that is different from the silver nitrate first used in India. It works faster, he says, and there's no way to remove it.

VAZQUEZ DAVILA: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: "It works by forming a new layer of dead cells," he says, "but with color." And just like that, my finger turns a deep sepia. Vazquez smiles broadly satisfied with his work.

VAZQUEZ DAVILA: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: "The reaction takes less than one minute."

VAZQUEZ DAVILA: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: "Everything is chemistry," he says.

VAZQUEZ DAVILA: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: "Matter and chemistry are the same."

VAZQUEZ DAVILA: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: "Matter changes constantly in the universe."

VAZQUEZ DAVILA: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: "If matter didn't change, we'd have no universe."

VAZQUEZ DAVILA: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: "Life is quite simply," he says, "chemical reactions." His indelible liquid has been used across Central America and in Haiti. This will be his sixth presidential election in Mexico.

VAZQUEZ DAVILA: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: "I make simple things," he says. "I don't have the smarts to put rockets on the moon, so I focus on simple things." Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Mexico City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.