MacGyver Would Applaud: Reno County, KS Engineers a Homemade Solution to a Heavy Problem

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Election administration has a well-deserved reputation for developing reliable procedures and carrying them out accurately time and again. It’s largely true and a good reputation to have, but it overlooks a key aspect of the job that can be just as important: inventiveness. That’s why I was tickled to see a story out of Reno County (Hutchinson), KS focusing on a homemade solution to a potentially difficult equipment problem. The Hutchinson News has more:

When Reno County remodeled the former jail annex into office space for several county departments, the project included installing a dumbwaiter to aid in storing documents and equipment in a second-story attic space.

Then the clerk’s office bought new voting machines to replace the county’s aging polling equipment.

While the desire is to store the equipment upstairs, the bulky, 3-foot-high ballot boxes don’t fit in the dumbwaiter.

Neither do all of the portable polling booths, which election staff pack in large rectangular boxes for hauling around and storage.

While the three dozen ballot boxes, which Election Clerk Jenna Fager estimated weigh about 65 pounds each, are on wheels, it’s no easy task hauling the equipment up and down a nearly 30-foot flight of stairs.

The polling booth boxes, which Fager estimated weigh 45 pounds each, have handles on their ends but are even more awkward.

Enter Reno County Maintenance Tech III Art Miller and Maintenance Supervisor Jim Arneson.

“They can be carried up the stairs, but it takes two or three people, and if they fall, it will come down on top of someone,” Arneson said of the equipment.

Miller quickly came up with a design for a cart or dolly that would ride on a set of rails on the stairs, with a winch at the top used to raise and lower it.

Not only did Miller design the solution, he built it himself:

As he built it in his free time over a couple of months, Miller, with Arneson’s advice, modified the design here and there, they said.

In the end, they created a set of channeled steel rails that run the length of the stairs. They attached the rails to the stairway walls on hinges, so they can be folded up out of the way when not in use, clearing the stairs.

When raised, they secure the rails against the wall using window sash locks.

The dolly, which Miller also fabricated and welded, has dumbbell weights attached to the back to offer stability as it tips toward the stairs. Straps attached to the dolly secure the equipment for its ride. When released from the winch cable, the dolly will automatically tip upright, Miller noted.

It takes about 30-seconds for the winch, rated for 1,100 pounds, to pull the cart up the stairs.

The entire solution needed some mechanical muscle, which (like many of us weekend do-it-yourselfers) he found at a local store:

The most expensive part of the system, Arneson noted, was the winch, which is an economy model he picked up at the local Harbor Freight. They learned, however, the winch quickly overheats, so they attached a small fan on the beam next to it to cool it during operation. Turning on the winch automatically triggers the fan.

“We may upgrade that in the future,” he said of the winch.

“It’s clearly overbuilt,” Miller said of his system. “But we only wanted to build it once.”

Best of all, the solution was essentially free to the county:

The two men had no idea on the total cost of their device, but he created it piecemeal from mostly available parts, Miller said, and did all the welding himself.

“It beats trying to carry the equipment up and down stairs,” Fager said. “It will definitely come in handy.”

“Kudos to Art and Jim for keeping after it, with several designs,” said Reno County Maintenance Director Harlan Depew. “The end result is neat to watch.”

I’ve written often about the concept of resilience in elections and the approach (borrowed from the Marines) of “improvise, adapt and overcome,” and this conveyance is a perfect example. Reno County isn’t alone – I’ve seen other inventive solutions out there as election officials seek to serve their voters and save taxpayers money – so it’s worth celebrating the incredible creativity and resourcefulness that exists in the field. It’s also not limited to machinery; I know that election officials are always looking for a better way to do their work and so finding efficiencies and improvements is a constant in the field. Here’s to all the MacGyvers out there! We can’t wait to see what you come up with next … so we’ll stay tuned!

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