From right to left: Richard Gottfried, Karen Young, Ron Moore, Ben Becker, Scott Spiegel. Surrogates for presidential candidates in the third party debate held at Hudson Guild community center on October 24, 2012. Photo by Joanna Marshall.

When voters head to the polls on Tuesday, they will discover a few people on the ballot who are not exactly household names, such as Jill Stein or Peta Lindsay. Who are they and how do you not know about them if they are running for president of the United States?

Every election year, third party candidates run even though their chances of winning are next to impossible. The presidential candidates who will appear on the New York state ballot this year are: Jill Stein of the Green Party, Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party, Peta Lindsay of the Party for Socialism and Liberation and Virgil Goode of the Constitution Party.

In stark contrast to the huge crowds that have greeted Barack Obama and Mitt Romney or surrogate speakers such as Bill Clinton in the final weeks of the campaign, only thirty people showed up at the Hudson Guild community center in Chelsea for the third party surrogates debate on October 24th. The crowd was predominately white and over 60-years-old with a smattering of young people from a mix of racial backgrounds. Six place cards were laid out on a folding table at the front of the room, but only five surrogates were seated. (Apparently the Constitution Party didn’t RSVP for the event.)

None of the surrogate speakers appeared to be well-known either. Ron Moore, membership director and former chairman of the Manhattan Libertarians, represented the Gary Johnson campaign. Karen Young, a staff member of the Writers Guild of America, spoke on behalf of Jill Stein and the Green Party. Ben Becker, a U.S. history Ph.D. candidate at CUNY and Occupy Wall Street activist, debated for Peta Lindsay, the 28-year-old Party for Socialism and Liberation candidate.

To ensure a robust debate, Democrat and Republican representatives were invited as well. Richard Gottfried, State Assemblyman for District 75, spoke on behalf of the Democrats. Scott Spiegel, a member of the Log Cabin Republicans, defended the Romney-Ryan ticket.

The first speaker, State Assemblyman Gottfried, unintentionally thrust the American political party duopoly into the forefront of the debate, saying, “This election is about two competing visions of what government and this country ought to be about.” Third parties disagree that there should be only two visions of the country’s future. Libertarian Moore rebutted that position by saying, “I don’t think there are just two visions. I see about thirty people in this room and I think there are thirty visions.”

Occupy Wall street activist Becker, who looks like Clark Kent with tousled black hair and a square jaw, spiritedly replied with his campaign’s “Seize the Banks” slogan. He  argued that  although there may be great philosophical differences between the Republican and Democratic visions, “in practice when it comes to the two parties’ economic programs, they’ve been shown to be quite similar and both ultimately at the service of Wall Street.”

Ralph Nader’s Green Party presidential campaign in 2000 was the most influential third party campaign of the last twenty years. Nader’s success in the swing state of Florida coincided with a minute margin of votes between Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore. Since Bush was declared the winner of Florida based on only a few hundred highly contested votes, many Democrats in their frustration at the narrow loss of the presidency blamed Nader for siphoning potentially Democratic voters from Gore’s ticket.

Karen Young, the Green Party representative, skirted mentioning Nader explicitly, but did touch on this controversy in more general terms. “The worst thing that could happen if you and all your friends and family were to vote for Jill Stein is that Obama might win New York State by a few less percentage points than he otherwise would,” said Young. “The latest poll showed that Obama was leading New York with 62 percent of the vote. If Jill even got 10 percent of that—which is unlikely—Obama would still win by 20 points.” In the nine swing states, every single vote is likely to matter, but in reliably Democratic states such as New York or Massachusetts or in historically safe GOP states such as Texas and South Carolina, many people can indeed feel free to vote for third party candidates without seriously endangering a Republican or Democratic candidate that they might ultimately prefer to win.

The third party candidates can play a role by highlighting important issues. As Young put it, “The point is that by having a political party and running candidates we can have our progressive ideas and alternative solutions on the table.” If a third party candidate gains serious support from voters, the primary candidates are forced to address the issues that the third party candidate represents in order to win back those votes.

Ross Perot, who ran as an independent candidate in the 1992 presidential election, emphasized balancing the budget and reducing the deficit, which garnered him nearly 19 percent of the popular vote. One could argue that this impressive turnout showed race-winner Bill Clinton how important these issues were to the nation. “You don’t get innovation in a monopoly situation,” Janet Hopf chimed in during the post-debate audience discussion.

The Libertarian surrogate at the debate also gave another reason that voting for a third party candidates is a meaningful gesture.  Ron Moore mentioned that Gary Johnson is planning to run again in the 2016 presidential election and hopes to gain 5 percent of the popular vote in this year’s election. If political party  reaches the 5 percent threshold, that party will qualify for federal funding from the Federal Election Commission. The Commission passes out millions of dollars each year to major party campaigns and supports the Democratic and Republican National Conventions. The Commission is bound by law to level the playing field by donating to third party campaigns, but only if the party had ample support from the public in the previous election.

What might be a long shot campaign this year could become more of a reality in future elections. A Gallup poll released on September 12th asked the question, “Do Republican and Democratic parties do an adequate job representing the American people, or do they do such a poor job that a third major party is needed?” The poll’s result: 46 percent of Americans answered that they believe a third major party is needed to represent them. That percentage is actually down from 2008 and 2010 when 58 percent of Americans wanted a third party. (The drop may be due to the fact that the poll was taken right after the national conventions when major party solidarity is heightened.)

As the debate wound to a close and the audience milled around the cheese plates in the back of the room, voices rose as people chatted boisterously about health care plans, tax cuts and alternative energy sources. There was a buzz of energy. Audience members eventually drifted out of the room as the elderly staff of the community center put away the folding chairs and pushed the podium into a closet. As people walked out the door into the chilly darkness, the question on every mind was the same. Who is going to win? Whose vision of America’s future will guide the nation for the next four years?