SEATTLE — Two by two, dozens of same-sex couples obtained their marriage licenses in Washington state early Thursday, just hours after Governor Chris Gregoire signed a voter-approved law legalizing gay marriage.
King County, the state’s biggest county, opened the doors to its auditor’s office in Seattle just after midnight to start distributing marriage licenses. But hundreds of people had lined up hours earlier, snaking around the downtown Seattle building on a chilly December night. By noon, nearly 400 licenses had been issued there.
‘‘We knew it was going to happen, but it’s still surreal,’’ said Amanda Dollente, who along with her partner, Kelly Middleton, began standing in line at 4 p.m. on Wednesday.
Washington state joins several other states that allow gay and lesbian couples to wed. Gregoire and Secretary of State Sam Reed certified the election Wednesday afternoon, as they were joined by couples who plan to wed and community activists who campaigned for gay marriage.
Because the state has a three-day waiting period, the earliest that weddings can take place is Sunday. Same-sex couples who previously were married in another state that allows gay marriage, such as Massachusetts, will not need to get remarried in Washington state. Their marriages will be valid as soon as the law takes effect.
‘‘This is a very important and historic day in the great state of Washington,’’ Gregoire said before signing the measure that officially certified the election results. ‘‘For many years now we’ve said one more step, one more step. And this is our last step for marriage equality in the state of Washington.’’
Last month, Washington, Maine, and Maryland became the first states to pass same-sex marriage by popular vote. They joined six other states — New York, Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont — and the District of Columbia that had already enacted laws or issued court rulings permitting same-sex marriage.
Referendum 74 in Washington state had asked voters to either approve or reject the state law legalizing same-sex marriage that legislators passed earlier this year. That law was signed by Gregoire in February but was put on hold pending the outcome of the election. Nearly 54 percent of voters approved the measure.
The law doesn’t require religious organizations or churches to perform marriages, and it does not subject churches to penalties if they do not marry gay or lesbian couples.
King County and Thurston County, home to the state capital of Olympia, opened at 12:01 a.m. Thursday to issue marriage licenses. While King County stayed open all night, Thurston opened briefly to issue licenses to 15 couples who had entered a lottery, then closed and reopened at 7 a.m.
Pierce County opened at 6:30 a.m.; Clark and Island counties started issuing licenses at 8 a.m.; and other counties held regular business hours.
Asked whether the middle-of-the-night marriage license roll-out was necessary, King County Executive Dow Constantine said, ‘‘People who have been waiting all these years to have their rights recognized should not have to wait one minute longer.’’
In Seattle, the mood was festive. Volunteers distributed roses, coffee, and fruit. Couples canoodled to keep warm. Champagne was poured. Groups of men and women serenaded the waiting line, one to the tune of ‘‘Going to the Chapel.’’
‘‘We waited a long time. We’ve been together 35 years, never thinking we’d get a legal marriage. Now I feel so joyous I can’t hardly stand it,’’ said 85-year-old Pete-e Petersen, who with her partner, 77-year-old Jane Abbott Lighty, were the first to get a license.
After meeting 35 years ago on a blind date in Sacramento, Lighty and Petersen will get married Sunday.
At the Thurston County courthouse Thursday morning, Deb Dulaney, 54, and Diane McGee, 64, both of Olympia, arrived just before 9 a.m. The couple has been together for 16 years, and they moved to Washington state in 2005 from California, where they were registered as domestic partners.
McGee said they wanted to get married there but were unable to before voters passed 2008’s Proposition 8, the amendment that outlawed gay marriage.