Society
11:48 am
Wed December 5, 2012

Countdown To Midnight Marriage Licenses

Party tents fill the plaza outside the King County Administration Building.
Credit Liz Jones / KUOW

The countdown is on. At 12:01 on December 6, King County will start handing out marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Hundreds are expected to show up for this historic, once-in-a-lifetime event. County staffers are working around the clock to pull off an unprecedented, all-night operation.

Outside the King County Administration Building in downtown Seattle, white party tents wrap around the plaza.

"We’ve got tents to keep the rain off, heaters to keep them warm and lights so they can see what’s going on," says Cameron Satterfield, a spokesman for the King County Recorder's Office.

The plaza is being set up for several hundred couples who are expected to start lining up here at 10:00 p.m. Wednesday night. Managers with clipboards scurry around. Electricians hang the overhead lights. A truckload of Porta Potties arrives. 

"We don’t normally plan parties in government," Satterfield says. "That just doesn’t happen, but this is probably the closest we'll get. I can’t remember anything like this happening before and I probably will not have anything like this ever again."

The Recorder’s Office is breaking with normal operations to open at midnight tonight. That’s when Washington’s new same-sex marriage law takes effect. Then, the office will stay open for 18 ½ hours straight to hand out marriage licenses. It will also be open for extended hours on December 7 and 8. It’s a gesture to gay couples who’ve waited years to tie the knot, so that they won’t need to wait a minute longer.

"We’ve got hundreds or thousands of people who’ve waited all their lives to get married and to fulfill a dream that -- " Satterfield pauses as his voice chokes up. "To be able to be a small part of that special day is really a privilege for all of us."

Inside the Recorder's Office, workers hook up more computers, printers and cash registers to handle the overflow crowd.

"It’s going to be quite an event," says Jon Scherer, Manager of the Recorder's Office.  He says he hasn't had to pull an all-nighter in many years, let alone several in a row. 

Scherer and his team have worked for weeks to get all the paperwork, equipment and staff ready to go. He points to the the new gender-neutral forms that let couples pick a term: bride, groom or spouse. He says he’s happy to take on this unique challenge.

“We handle a lot of day-to-day transactions -- real estate, public records and marriage licenses, obviously, says Scherer. "But it’s not often our office is touched by something as big and monumental as this and I’m really proud to be a part of it.”

Another woman in his office, Thea Thach, is slightly more apprehensive about the big night. Thach jokes, "I’m like, oh my gosh, am I going to be able to stay awake?  I’m going to need a lot of Red Bull.”

She likely won’t be the only one. Wisely, the two coffee shops in the county building also plan to stay open through the night.