The reason most people haven't heard of the alternatives is that the Commission on Presidential Debates controls all access to the debates. This organization was formed by the Democratic and Republican parties, so it's in their best interests to prevent other parties from participating. Prior to this organization taking the reins, the League of Women Voters handled the debates. However, in 1988, the League discovered that the two major party candidates at the time, Bush I and Dukakis, had colluded to prevent others from participating in the debates and even devised a way to control the questions. The League withdrew sponsorship of the debates and its president issued the follow statement:
The League of Women Voters is withdrawing its sponsorship of the presidential debate...because the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter. It has become clear to us that the candidates' organizations aim to add debates to their list of campaign-trail charades devoid of substance, spontaneity and honest answers to tough questions. The League has no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public. [Emphasis added.] (Source)Thus, the Commission on Presidential Debates stepped in to fill the void. This organization enters into secret agreements with the candidates and keeps their donor (but not their sponsor) list private. (Kudos to the YWCA USA, Philips Electronics, and BBH New York, two of which were past sponsors of the debate, for pulling their support this year because third party candidates were not included in the debates.)
Last month, eighteen pro-democracy groups, including Common Cause, Public Citizen, Rock the Vote, called on the Commission to release to the public and the press the debate contracts entered into with both Obama and Romney. According to Market Watch, "Previous debate contracts negotiated by the major party campaigns have contained anti-democratic provisions that sanitize debate formats, exclude viable third-party candidates and prohibit additional debates from being held." [Emphasis added.]
According to the Commission's website, two criteria for inclusion in the debates are: 1) that the candidate qualify to have his/her name appear on enough state ballots to have at least a mathematical chance of securing an Electoral College majority in the 2012 general election; 2) that the candidate have a level of support of at least 15% of the national electorate as determined by five selected national public opinion polling organizations. I haven't done the math on the Electoral College issue, but regardless of how the math works out, doesn't the American public have a right to know what options are available - and that they can always write in a candidate on a ballot? Concerning the polls, living in a so-called battleground state has exposed me to an avalanche of polls. Because they are all automated, most don't even give the option to choose a third-party candidate. How then can a third-party candidate poll at 15% or above if the polls exclude the possibility of selecting him or her?
Americans pride themselves in being a part of a free and democratic country. Excluding valid third party candidates from presidential debates is not democracy. I've searched the Commission's website and could only come up with this email address to contact them: email@example.com (they don't list an address or full contact name). If you're outraged about this, I recommend that you contact the Commission and let them know how you feel. I've often heard that voting for a third party candidate is essentially throwing away your vote. I believe that voting for a candidate whose platform you don't fully support is throwing away your vote.