Michael Greenberg/CBS News Ed O’Keefe, Gayle King, Norah O’Donnell, John Dickerson and Margaret Brennan
In the field of journalism, no event is bigger than election night. While most Americans spent the past week watching the World Series or doom-scrolling Twitter, the all-star team at CBS News hunkered down in windowless rooms to put months of preparation to the test.
"We are ready for everything and anything on CBS," says CBS Mornings co-host Gayle King, one of several on-air reporters who've sat through hours of rehearsals to prepare for the big day. "It takes an army. I like to say we have a whole battalion — and the village too. We are pulling out all the stops."
King will sit at CBS News' anchor desk in New York City on Tuesday night, alongside CBS Evening News' Norah O'Donnell, Face the Nation's Margaret Brennan and Prime Time's John Dickerson. Chief White House correspondent Nancy Cordes, senior White House and political correspondent Ed O'Keefe and chief election and campaign correspondent Robert Costa will take turns occupying the fifth seat at the anchor desk.
"I think one of the things that makes CBS News' coverage distinct is that all of our anchors have a background in political reporting," says O'Donnell, who has covered every election since 1996 and will lead the team of on-air talent through the broadcast.
O'Donnell notes that anchors on the network's various news programs also "spend a lot of time out in the field," giving them a better sense of how they can guide conversation when they call on other election units in the New York and D.C. studios — and reporters at CBS' 14 local stations around the country.
Michael Greenberg/CBS News
Since last week, the CBS Mornings studio in Times Square has been converted to a bona fide election headquarters. The green room is now a makeshift office space, with the famed swing tied to the ceiling; the morning show's round table is tucked off set, replaced by the wide, panel-style desk where the anchors will sit; and new dynamic graphics soar across the set's wraparound screens.
During PEOPLE's walk-through on Friday, the room was already bustling for rehearsals.
Vladimir Duthiers, correspondent and anchor of CBS News Streaming Network, will be on set breaking down exit polls throughout the night. He's spent two weeks rigorously preparing for the event, supported by a full team of analysts working out of a dressing room nearby.
Duthiers has an advantage covering the elections, because he spends several hours on the air each day covering midterm news bumps — "I'm not coming into this cold" — but that doesn't mean he plans to sit back and wing it.
"I've been sitting in a room with my producer and the exit poll team, talking about the issues that they're going to be asking the voters in exit polls," Duthiers tells PEOPLE, "so that I understand them, that I understand the historical nature of those issues, the historical nature of how people have voted in the past for Democrats or Republicans, and then when it comes to particular candidates, understanding where they stand on the issue."
CBS News' exit poll data will not only give viewers an idea of how races are poised to swing, but will help explain why voters made their choices. "From understanding the answers that the voters give us, we can sort of build a picture," Duthiers says. "And that gives us an insight into their hearts and their minds."
Michael Greenberg/CBS News
In the midst of widespread election denial that's trickled over from the 2020 presidential race, CBS News will debut what it calls the Democracy Desk on Tuesday evening, seating chief justice and homeland security correspondent Jeff Pegues, election law contributor David Becker and congressional correspondent Scott MacFarlane.
The three, also stationed in CBS News' New York City election headquarters, will be analyzing conflicts at polling stations, state efforts to make the vote-counting process more transparent, and how fallout from the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riots plays a role in the outcome of Tuesday's elections.
A few feet to their side sits the Election Data Desk, where viewers will watch chief Washington correspondent Major Garrett, surveys executive director Anthony Salvanto and the rest of the decision team crunch numbers and call races in live time.
"I think what sets us apart is the commitment to news and not noise," says Brennan, who brings a wealth of knowledge she's gleaned from Face the Nation interviews to the table. "We will offer clear, transparent, and down-the-middle reporting and context. And we also have extensive data to help illuminate what's motivating voters."
Brennan and Salvanto have taken a particular interest in four demographics that they believe will play a significant role in election outcomes: pressured parents, women committed to restoring Roe v. Wade, firm Trump followers, and childless voters under 30. Through focus groups and polling, they have grown to understand these groups very well, and will be calling upon their discoveries as they interpret election night results.
Michael Greenberg/CBS News Norah O'Donnell
Efforts to organize CBS News' ambitious 2022 election broadcast began to seriously pick up in January under the leadership of David Reiter, executive producer of special events, and Mary Hager, executive producer of Face the Nation who is serving as the executive editor for Tuesday's broadcast.
"I think that the enthusiasm and the very solemn, important challenge that we all face is just making sure that we can really make a difference with our coverage on election night," Hager says. "We want viewers to really feel that they've learned something."
Hager calls the mission to plan for election night "enormous, immense and unbelievable." She and Reiter thought of every possible storyline and election outcome that would need to be prepared so that it could funnel through the control room on a moment's notice. Most of the packages that the news team has spent the better part of a year preparing will never make it to air.
Never miss a story — sign up for PEOPLE's free daily newsletter to stay up-to-date on the best of what PEOPLE has to offer.
The entire CBS News team is ready to stay on the air as long as it takes, anticipating that the broadcast will last until around 2 a.m. ET on Wednesday morning.
"The last election, I actually slept here at the studio," King says, adding that she wore the same dress on camera two days in a row. "I thought I'd be able to go home and change and bathe, but the way that election took out last time, we didn't have the results. So I ended up laying on the green room couch for maybe 20 minutes or so."
Though she acknowledges a 20-minute couch nap in full TV-ready attire "isn't really sleeping," she made it work, and the adrenaline of keeping the nation informed in real time allowed her to power through. That adrenaline is a shared source of fuel among the staff, who each said in one form or another that it's what makes late, six-hour broadcasts like Tuesday's possible.
"Election night is like my Super Bowl," O'Donnell says. "Even though it's a lot of preparation, I enjoy every second of it."
CBS News' America Decides: Campaign '22 election night special begins at 5 p.m. ET on streaming, and broadcast television from 8-11 p.m. ET, or longer for some stations. Coverage will continue throughout the evening until 2 a.m., live across all time zones.
Check your voter registration, locate your polling place, and make a voting plan at Vote.org to ensure that your voice is heard this election season.